Where we are

It is difficult to keep finding new words for the political catastrophe that is engulfing the UK: the disingenuousness with which the Brexit government conducts itself, the wimpishness with which the majority of sitting MPs go along with it all, the – well, the non-existence of any opposition. Although Ian McEwan did a swift back-pedal on remarks made in interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (no, they weren’t ‘garbled in translation’, Ian, it was you being spineless: how pathetic, to try and make out that ‘Nazi’ was substituted for ‘nasty’ – did it never occur to you the two words only sound alike in English?) he was perfectly right, and there was no need for him to hand out any mollifying ‘clarification’. The people of the UK are not Nazis (although a vocal minority are doing a damn good impression) but the democratic underpinnings of our parliamentary system have been subject to exactly the kind of depredations that laid the foundations for Nazi dictatorship in Germany in the 1930s.

A plebiscite – that’s a referendum to you and me – might look like democracy but more often than not it’s a power-grab by a government or section of government bent on weaponising the general populace towards its own ends. And talk about the Big Lie. Again, the people of the UK are not stupid, but they have been urged towards a certain viewpoint based on unsound principles, evident falsehoods, and the poisonous drip-drip of tabloid sensationalism. That blatant lies went virtually unchallenged as part of the pre-referendum Brexit ‘debate’ is not just a scandal, it has morphed into the biggest threat to our parliamentary democracy in living memory. That the sitting government now seems bent on pursuing the wages of these falsehoods – diving after them like lemmings over a cliff, in fact – is like watching an experiment in mass hypnosis run fatally out of control. That we as an electorate are effectively without an opposition – well, those ‘nasty’ comparisons just get bigger and bigger.

In a UK where government ministers can push ahead with an insane and retrograde agenda – an agenda that will set the social and political agenda for decades to come – without due parliamentary process (what sop to process we’ve been offered has been nothing more than a charade), and where the Lord Chancellor can stand by while the most scurrilous of our national newspapers labels our judiciary enemies of the people, it feels as if literally anything could happen here and there’d be fuck all we could do about it.

Remind you of anywhere, Mr McEwan?

A speech to Scottish Labour in which London’s mayor Sadiq Khan drew parallels between those in favour of a second Scottish independence referendum and those voting for Trump or Brexit kickstarted some heated debate last month about the nature of Scottish nationalism. I can see why Mr Khan might feel worried: he has had to face down the most appalling racism and the very word ‘nationalist’ must set off about a hundred warning bells. But while the frenzied backlash against Claire Heuchan for her timely and thought-provoking piece supporting Khan’s view is an unfortunate example of exactly what Khan was talking about (although I disagreed with Heuchan’s essay on several points, it seems to me that she is precisely the kind of thinker we need more of) I still think Khan got it wrong. Not about nationalism – he’s dead right about that – but about what the SNP stands for.

When talking about Scottish nationalism, we would do well to remember that the ‘N’ in SNP does not stand for ‘nationalist’, but for ‘national’. The SNP is the party for Scotland, in other words – not the party that promotes ‘Scottish nationalism’ in the sense Khan was getting at.

That kind of nationalism is old – so old – and invariably toxic. Not just in Scotland, but everywhere. As a planet, we are facing unprecedented challenges from disease, from poverty, from educational inequality and above all from climate change (which, if ignored, will exacerbate all the above a millionfold), In the face of such challenges, many of which are threatening to become crises even as we speak, the idea of something as thoroughly nineteenth-century as ‘nationalism’ is almost indecently parochial, destructive, and above all useless.

For Theresa May to claim that Nicola Sturgeon has ‘seized upon’ Brexit as an excuse to drive forward her own political agenda is just another piece of gross misinformation – all the more gross because everyone who peddles it knows it is untrue. The material change in political circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum could not be more seismic. Anyone who has followed Sturgeon’s numerous attempts these past six months to liaise with Westminster, to talk through options, to come to a reasonable compromise can see clearly that her announcement yesterday that she will be seeking consent from the Scottish parliament to call a second independence referendum was made because Sturgeon felt she would be failing in her responsibility not to do so. On the eve of May’s triggering of Article 50 and still with nothing but icy contempt shown for her efforts, there was finally no alternative.

As she made her announcement to the press yesterday, Sturgeon made it very clear that ‘it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake. What is at stake is the kind of country we will become’.  As journalist and commentator Robert Somynne so beautifully put it in his piece contesting Khan’s view of Scottish nationalism, ‘the ambition is not being “better than England”, but aspiring to just be better in an age in which progressivism is under threat‘.

I think Nicola Sturgeon is brave and I believe she is honest. As First Minister for Scotland she has my full support. My dream is to see an independent, diverse, progressive Scotland at the heart of a stronger European Union and that is what I’ll be voting for when the time comes. Whatever happens, I am proud and very happy to call Scotland my home.

End of round one

Well, all nine shadow jurors have now revealed their personal Sharke shortlists – you can have a look at them here at the Anglia Ruskin Centre for SF and Fantasy website. Each post includes a personal reflection on this year’s submissions list, together with the how and why behind their own selection. They make for fascinating reading. Do feel free to join in the discussion in the comments, or post your own Clarke predictions at the ‘guess the shortlist’ page – remember you could win all six books if you turn out to be right.

There are some interesting points to note here, even before the main business of the shadow jury – reading and reviewing the books, that is – gets underway. Between the nine of us, we’ve chosen twenty-seven different novels, which is quite a spread, given that the usual number of serious Clarke contenders in any one year usually ends up being around the thirty mark. The divide between genre and non-genre imprints is also an even heat – I make it thirteen from genre imprints, thirteen from mainstream imprints, and one self-published – so in spite of some early anxieties in certain quarters that our picks might end up being rather light on heartland science fiction, the final list turns out to be a pretty decent survey of the different styles of SF in contention, which seems all the more remarkable given that there was no pre-planning or deliberate engineering involved.

And this is where the fun truly begins. We’ll each now read all our picks – rereading any we’ve previously read – posting detailed reviews of each at the ARU website as we go along. We’re all keen to read as many of each other’s picks as we have time for, too, in order that the discussion between us and our eventual conclusions be as wide-ranging and informed as possible. You can expect supplementary posts – on shortlists-that-might-have-been, books read but not selected, general ruminations on the state of the genre – as and when individual jurors feel moved to write them.

All in all, there should be plenty to keep everyone interested until the official Clarke Award shortlist is announced at the beginning of May and the third stage of our project begins.  Do please read along with us! You’ll find the complete list of books selected by the shadow jurors – think of it as the Sharke longlist – below:

Naomi Alderman – The Power

Chris Bell – Songshifting

Lily Brooks-Dalton – Good Morning, Midnight

Matthew De Abaitua – The Destructives

Don Delillo – Zero K

Emma Geen – The Many Selves of Katherine North

Matt Hill – Graft

Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter

Nora Jemisin –The Fifth Season

Joanna Kavenna – A Field Guide to Reality

Andrus Kiviruhk – The Man Who Spoke Snakish

Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

Cixin Liu – Death’s End

Andrei Pelevin – Empire V

Martin MacInnes – Infinite Ground

Christopher Priest – The Gradual

Ali Shaw – The Trees

Johanna Sinisalo – The Core of the Sun

Matt Suddain – Hunters & Collectors

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Steph Swainston – Fair Rebel

Lavie Tidhar – Central Station

Catherynne Valente – Radiance

Colson Whitehead –The Underground Railroad

Aliya Whiteley – The Arrival of Missives

Nick Woods – Azanian Bridges

John Wray – The Lost Time Accidents

New Fears

Pleased to announce that my story ‘Four Abstracts’ will feature in an all-new horror anthology from Titan, New Fears. Edited by Mark Morris, New Fears is scheduled for publication this September and here’s the full Table of Contents:

THE BOGGLE HOLE – ALISON LITTLEWOOD

SHEPHERDS’ BUSINESS – STEPHEN GALLAGHER

NO GOOD DEED – ANGELA SLATTER

THE FAMILY CAR – BRADY GOLDEN

FOUR ABSTRACTS – NINA ALLAN

SHELTERED IN PLACE – BRIAN KEENE

THE FOLD IN THE HEART – CHAZ BRENCHLEY

DEPARTURES – A.K. BENEDICT

THE SALTER COLLECTION – BRIAN LILLIE

SPEAKING STILL – RAMSEY CAMPBELL

THE EYES ARE WHITE AND QUIET – CAROLE JOHNSTONE

THE EMBARRASSMENT OF DEAD GRANDMOTHERS – SARAH LOTZ

EUMENIDES (THE BENEVOLENT LADIES) – ADAM NEVILL

ROUNDABOUT – MURIEL GRAY

THE HOUSE OF THE HEAD – JOSH MALERMAN

SUCCULENTS – CONRAD WILLIAMS

DOLLIES – KATHRYN PTACEK

THE ABDUCTION DOOR – CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN

THE SWAN DIVE – STEPHEN LAWS

‘Four Abstracts’ is a follow-up of sorts to my 2007 novella A Thread of Truth, and yes, spiders do feature. It’s set mainly in Hartland, a village in West Devon that I knew I wanted to write about from the moment I first visited it. I’m very fond of these characters, who may yet have more stories to tell…

A toe in the water

I went into Glasgow yesterday, to attend a couple of screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival. I was particularly keen to check out Olivier Assayas’s new movie Personal Shopper, and after having (finally) caught up with Local Hero last summer, the opportunity to see Bill Forsyth’s rarely screened adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping seemed too good to miss.

In the event, the Forsyth proved the superior movie by far – emotionally rich and beautifully photographed, it put the curiously affectless, all-surface Personal Shopper in the shade. After the Festen-tense drama of Summer Hours and the intense, dramatic weirdness of The Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s handling of the ghost story elements in his new venture seemed altogether too conventional, too trope-y, while the ‘sad lives of the super-rich’ plot strand that didn’t bother me overmuch in Clouds (because the emotional drama felt so convincing) here played out like a much less successful recapitulation of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (which did at least demonstrate a modicum of irony). The Neon Demon, only less in your face and therefore less gripping.

The weirdest thing for me about Personal Shopper was the music that accompanied the closing credits: Anna von Hausswolff’s ‘Track of Time’, the very same track that, with its accompanying video, directly inspired a recently completed short story of mine. More on that, hopefully, soon.

As much as the movies themselves, the best thing about yesterday was being in the Glasgow Film Theatre, the number one indie film venue in the country and a joyous early discovery for me in our new life here in Scotland. Taking the ferry and the train from Rothesay to Glasgow is made special precisely through being not special: this is a normal, regular commuter route, a well-worn connection between the island and the mainland that has existed and thrived for several centuries. Our two regular ferries – the MV Bute and the MV Argyle – were built in Gdansk and sail roughly once an hour in both directions. They are a constant and regular presence in our life here and one can’t help but feel a strong and immediate affection for them. 

Before moving here I’d not been in Glasgow for more than ten years and so had trace memories only. Since coming to live on Bute, I’ve been into the city twice already and the connection feels immediate and strong. What I place. There is enough here – of history, of psychogeography, of culture – to fill several lifetimes. I am already making notes on all manner of subjects – even notes about notes I need to make notes about. If there has been anything lacking in our time here so far it is simply hours in the day. There is so much to think about, to discover.

One of the (many) upsides to being involved with the shadow Clarke jury is that it’s the first thing that has made me feel normal – i.e like the world around me is something I recognise – since June 24th last year. While the planet’s most obnoxious internet troll continues to host his clowns’ tea party in the White House, and while the Westminster government continues hell bent on its mission to transport Britain back to the 1950s (a mission every politically literate person in the country – and a good few out of it – knows is batshit crazy), we can at least still read, we can still write, we can still cogently criticise what we read and write. (Abigail Nussbaum’s similar thoughts on nominating for the Hugos are well worth reading.)

We’ll start seeing the first of the shadow jury’s personal shortlist posts going live this week. And while you’re waiting to find out what we’ve picked, why not have a stab at guessing the official @ClarkeAward shortlist?  The award’s director, Tom Hunter, has come up with a competition: guess the official shortlist in its entirety and win copies of all six books! The contest is made all the more tantalising by the fact that to date, no one has ever managed to do this. So try and be the first. The competition is being hosted along with the shadow jury at the ARU Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Just post your guesses in the comments to enter.

 

Ruthless Shadow

Here’s Jonathan McCalmont, on the state we’re in and his reasons for agreeing to be a part of the #shadowclarke jury:

“To be blunt, I don’t think that genre fandom survived the culture wars of 2015 and I think genre culture has now entered a post-apocalyptic phase in which a few institutional citadels manage to keep the lights on while the rest of the field is little more than a blasted wasteland full of isolated, lonely people. One reason why I agreed to get involved with shadowing the Clarke Award is that I see the Shadow Clarke as an opportunity to build something new that re-introduces the idea that engaging with literary science fiction can be about more than denouncing your former friends and providing under-supported writers with free PR.”

And in this spirit, I’m happy to report that members of the shadow jury are busily engaged in salvaging viable resources from that blasted wasteland, endlessly scavenging the Clarke submissions list in search of the ideal shortlist. Expect to see some of our thoughts on this go live in the coming week.

Paper Knife – or should that be Mack the Knife?

“But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.”

As we await the unveiling of this year’s Clarke submissions list, here’s a great post from another of our #shadowclarke jurors, Maureen Kincaid Speller, on the problems of juried awards and the value of transparency. Her words here about using the shadow Clarke as an opportunity to test everything she’s ever thought or felt about science fiction feel particularly apposite to me, and indeed form one of the main reasons I wanted to set this project in motion in the first place. Maureen also provides a useful list of links to all the #sharke posts so far. Thanks, Maureen!

Eve’s Alexandria

One of our shadow jurors, Victoria Hoyle, offers a wonderfully cogent and lively summing-up of the process and rationale behind our #shadowclarke jury over at her Booktube channel. Thanks, Victoria!

 

Announcing the Shadow Clarke

We had some exciting news yesterday from Clarke Award director Tom Hunter, who unveiled the official timeline for this year’s award:

“Key dates for the Clarke Award 2017: Submission List: 14 Feb, Shortlist: 3 May, Winner: 27 Jul + Sir Arthur’s Birthday: 16 Dec.”

Not long to go then before we know for sure which books are in contention! Tying in closely with that announcement, I’m thrilled to bring you a bit of news of my own, something I’ve had simmering away on the back burner for some months and can now make public: this year, a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury. We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

To say I’m excited about this project would be putting it mildly. To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be, and it was with this in mind that the idea of setting up a shadow jury first came to me. The idea is not to ‘challenge’ the official jury in any way, but to bring more to the party: more readers, more critics, more books, more discussion. And the beauty of a shadow jury is that everything can be out in the open. Over the following weeks and months, you’ll be able to read along with us, find out which books we love and which we’re not so wild about – and more to the point, why. I’d bet there isn’t a single Clarke-watcher out there who hasn’t at some point found themselves completely at a loss over some jury decision or other. When it comes to the shadow jury, our whole process will be transparent. Argue back if you like – engaged discussion is an activity we’ll be actively encouraging.

We have some wonderful people making up our shadow Clarke jury in its inaugural year  – writers and critics who have already given substantial amounts of time, attention and enthusiasm in helping to get this project off the ground. I’m proud to introduce to you the band of soothsayers, poets and reprobates who, in addition to myself, constitute the members of our shadow jury:

MEGAN A.M has always loved reading science fiction, and started her blog with the aim of discovering and writing about more of the science fiction she loved. She began following the Clarke Award several years ago, and blogged the whole of the shortlist for the first time in 2016. She blogs at From Couch to Moon.

VAJRA CHANDRASEKERA is a writer of speculative fiction from Columbo, Sri Lanka. His short fiction has been published in a wide variety of venues including Lightspeed, Lackington’s, Nightmare Magazine and the Apex Book of World SF. He is a fiction editor and reviewer for Strange Horizons and posts essays on aspects of science fiction and genre at his personal blog.

DAVID HEBBLETHWAITE has been following science fiction and writing about books for many years. He has twice served on the shadow jury for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and his reviews and commentary have appeared in both print venues and online spaces, including Strange Horizons, The Bookseller, Fiction Uncovered, and Vector. His much admired personal blog is David’s Book World.

VICTORIA HOYLE is a PhD student and archivist at York City Archive. She reads widely across all genres and likes to record her ideas and impressions at Eve’s Alexandria. She has published reviews at various venues, including Strange Horizons, and has a sparkly new Booktube channel here.

NICK HUBBLE is reader in English Literature at Brunel University, London. He has written extensively on speculative fiction across a variety of venues and has been following the Clarke Award for fifteen years.

PAUL KINCAID is a writer and critic and previous winner of the BSFA Award (non-fiction). A stalwart of the British science fiction community, Paul was a founding member of the committee that set up the Clarke Award, as well as serving as award chairman from 1996 – 2006. His essays on science fiction are collected in the volumes What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008), and Call and Response (2014). His monograph on the fiction of Iain Banks will shortly be published by Illinois University Press as part of their Modern Masters of SF series. He blogs at Through the Dark Labyrinth.

MAUREEN KINCAID SPELLER is a writer and critic and lecturer in science fiction literature. She is reviews editor for Strange Horizons, and was a judge for the Clarke Award in 1993 and 1994. Her series of blog essays on the 2012 Clarke and BSFA Awards, The Shortlist Project, attracted wide notice and was nominated for the BSFA Award. She blogs at Paper Knife.

JONATHAN McCALMONT is a freelance writer, critic and film scout. His reviews of films, books, comics and games have been published across a wide variety of print and online venues. He writes a bi-monthly column for Interzone magazine, Future Interrupted, and blogs at Ruthless Culture.

Many of them are seasoned Clarke-watchers, others are newer to the game, but all are purveyors of excellent and incisive criticism, each with their own particular approach to science fiction, their own personal history within and in relation to the genre. It’s fantastic to have such talent on board, and I for one can’t wait to hear what they have to say about this year’s submissions.

Last, but by no means least, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to Helen Marshall and her team at Anglia Ruskin University, who have offered us their brand new Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy website as the ‘hub’ for the project. Although most jury members will be posting material at their own blogs, websites and on social media, the ARU SFF Centre will be your one-stop shop for all things shadow-Clarke-related – you can read it there first. ARU are also planning to hold student discussion groups around the Clarke Award throughout the award’s season, making more readers and critics aware of the award and bringing more commentary and contribution to the table. Which is all fantastic news.

If you head over to the ARU website now, you’ll find the first shadow Clarke posts have already gone live:

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: a note from the Centre by Helen Marshall

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: an introduction and a manifesto by Nina Allan

INTRODUCTION from The Arthur C. Clarke Award: a critical anthology by Paul Kincaid

You can follow the Centre for SFF on Twitter at @csffanglia, and if you want to talk about the project on social media please feel welcome to use the hashtag #shadowclarke.

May the games commence!

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

I have a complicated relationship with immersive fiction. As a reader, it’s the ultimate pleasure: to be so thoroughly absorbed in a world, a landscape, a cast of characters that the world you happen to be living in recedes for a while, that there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than reading that book, that returning to it after each forced separation is like hurrying down cellar steps into a lighted, secret domain of intrigue and wonder.

The greater part of what you stand to lose in becoming a writer is the natural, instinctive access to that domain that you enjoy as a reader. You can go there all right, but you run the risk of not giving a shit. Of shrugging your shoulders and sneering ‘yeah, and?’ Of so consistently, so predictably demanding the text teach you something that you forget the joy of story altogether.

I remember when I left home to go to university, being worried about not having access to a piano. I was never what you’d call a real pianist, but my daily contact with the instrument, with my dog-eared collection of beloved sheet music, with the practice of playing, was of such importance to me that I could not imagine a life in which that contact did not form a key component and the very idea of losing it terrified me.

As it happened, there was no problem getting access to pianos at university and I was able to book practice sessions – at the music department in Upper Redlands Road, Reading, then at lovely Knightley, Exeter University’s music department (now closed – another crime against higher learning in Britain) – whenever I wanted. It was only later, when I moved out of higher education and into accommodation where housing a piano would have been difficult to impossible, that the instrument and I began to lose our connection. In sailing so far out into another life, I watched the lights of the old one recede and then disappear. I don’t play now, because I haven’t played in so long I would be appalled to discover the full extent of what I have lost. And so it goes.

For a writer, losing that instinctive and unthinking connection to story is a little bit the same.

I don’t read immersive fantasy because a lot of it is ‘just’ story: there is little for me to learn from it except what happens next. If I’m honest, it has most likely been my too-ready adherence to this prejudice that has formed the core reason it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Steph Swainston’s Castle books. I’ve been aware of the series since the publication of this first instalment back in 2004, even to the extent of knowing broadly who the characters are and what happens to them, but I somehow always managed to put off the actual reading ‘until later’. I finally picked up The Year of Our War just before we moved house, firstly in an attempt to make good that gap, and secondly because after a seven-year hiatus a new Castle book was finally published in December of last year. I felt curious about Fair Rebel as a possible Clarke contender and thought I’d better read at least one of the earlier Castle novels as preparation.

The bare bones of its synopsis might cast The Year of Our War as standard fantasy:  the allied kingdoms of the Fourlands are under attack from ferociously invasive giant insects. The people’s only hope are the Eszai, a higher caste of immortals of immense and specific talent, sequestered at the Castle and ruled over by the Emperor, who is himself immortal and not always consistent in his judgements. But to think of Swainston’s novel in such basic terms would be a little like dismissing War and Peace as a family saga.

The Year of Our War was a joy to read. Not just for its story, which I found thoroughly engrossing in a way I’ve not experienced much recently, but for its clear and striking commitment to itself, its willingness to be not ‘quirky’ (a horrid word, which suggests slightness, lack of intellectual depth) but odd. There is coherent worldbuilding here – hardcore fantasy fans need not be disappointed – but the novel constantly subverts itself, shifting its emphasis as the author’s vision demands, pulling the rug from beneath the feet of cosy expectations. There is an acerbic, decidedly offbeat humour, a preoccupation with metaphysics, with contemporary politics, with the off-kilter inner workings of intelligent minds. Swainston’s use of language is deft, imaginative, colourful and so intrinsically fit for purpose you barely stop to notice how breathtakingly lovely it can be and often is.

This is a writer so thoroughly in command of her materials that she knows exactly how and when to break the rules, which is often and inventively and with evident delight.

There is something else, too, a rawness of purpose, an unvarnished quality that is seriously on the endangered list in the increasingly homogenised, sanded-down SFF published by genre imprints. The narrative darts this way and that, veering off at a tangent here, chasing off down a side street there, picking up the thread of the story only fifty pages later. These are the supposedly dodgy habits, the intrusive mannerisms, the blurring of the narrative line that many agents and editors insist are deal-breakers. Gods be thanked then they survive intact here. The Year of Our War is fiction that is meant and felt, fiction that is entirely the product of the author’s vision. Fantasy fction as original as this – as wayward as this – is rarer than you think. While reading The Year of Our War I frequently found myself wondering if any editor working for one of the larger imprints today would have allowed the manuscript to get anywhere near the copy-editing stage without having its wings clipped.

I experienced also a mounting sense of disbelief, that Steph Swainston and the Castle series are not better known. Swainston began publishing just as China Mieville was gaining ascendancy as the premier writer of the so-called ‘New Weird’. There was then and still is now plenty of discussion around whether the New Weird was really a thing, or simply a marketing tactic. Personally I tend towards the belief that it was a thing, and that as a means of talking about the burst of metafictional and conceptual innovation that irrupted into the genre, the novels and writers that defined the field in the early years of the new century, the New Weird was as good a label as any. But could it be that the attention given to Mieville, the overweening emphasis on Mieville sucked the oxygen out of the nascent movement and stopped it actually going anywhere? That less publicised writers like Swainston were sidelined simply by not being China, then found themselves further disadvantaged as Mieville himself became less visible and the excitement around the New Weird began to diminish?

None of this is Mieville’s fault, of course, and difficult to prove either way. What is plainly evident though is that Steph Swainston is one of the most creatively and intellectually ambitious writers working in genre, and – after being faced with this heartbreaking article in 2011 – we should feel thankful and delighted that she is writing again. Not that the industry seems to have learned much in the interim: Fair Rebel was published at the dog-end of the year to little fanfare.  And for the record, the whole guff about Swainston’s earlier Castle novels being rejected by awards juries as ‘not science fiction’ is plainly idiotic: if Perdido Street Station could be shortlisted for (and go on to win) the Clarke, why not The Year of Our War? And when are those same juries going to admit that novels featuring wars with giant insects are no less echt SF than novels about generation starships? If it’s a question of which is more likely to happen in a foreseeable future, I know which of the two I’d place my bet on, at any rate…

(You can read a fascinating interview with Steph Swainston about the world of Castle here.)