The Last Hurrah?

clarke20I first became aware of the Arthur C. Clarke Award at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was starting to take a professional interest in what we like to call the field. Prior to that, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as the Clarke Award – I knew Margaret Atwood had won it, for example – but not of how it related to other awards and to critical discourse. I remember the announcement of the winner – Perdido Street Station – in 2001, largely because of the gathering interest around a certain up-and-coming young writer named China Mieville, but the first year I can recall taking an active interest in the award at the shortlist stage was 2003. Two of the novels on that shortlist – Christopher Priest’s The Separation (Chris and I didn’t meet in person until 2004 but I’d been an admirer of his writing for years) and M. John Harrison’s Light – were key works for me, novels from what I might loosely have termed ‘my’ science fiction. I was interested to see how the battle between them would play out. Also on that shortlist was The Scar, which I still consider to be Mieville’s finest novel to date. These were big hitters, big books. The Clarke was clearly an award to take note of and I was officially hooked.

One of the central reasons the Clarke became so interesting to me is that it is a juried award. Nothing involving human beings can ever be entirely objective, but the presence of a jury – a panel of persons selected for their ability to be impartial and for their knowledge of the field – does at least suggest a level of discipline, critical acumen and meaningful debate that should but rarely does pertain to fan awards. At the simplest level, only a vanishingly small number of fans – now so more than ever – can ever hope to come close to reading all the books – or even all the critically relevant books – in contention for an award, which means that very nearly everyone voting, and this includes you and me, will be voting from a position of partiality right from the start. Add to this the ease with which fan-voted awards can be gamed – the Sad and Rabid Puppies being merely the most recent perpetrators of such shenanigans – and you end up with something that is practically worthless in critical terms, and only rarely approaches a broad consensus of what ‘most’ fans ‘like’. Add to that the sheer tininess of some of the committed voting pools – the BSFA Award for example often has fewer than 150 people voting – and the picture looks even bleaker.

The critical discourse around fan awards also tends to be lacklustre. In 2015, for example, it centred almost entirely around the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaign, and not in a good way. Instead of focussing on the terrifyingly poor quality of many of the shortlisted works – which would at least have provided some amusement, not to mention more than sufficient reason to prompt those blanket No Award votes in and of itself – criticism rapidly polarised into mostly unexamined, gloves-off prejudice on one hand, self-righteous faux-indignation on the other. Such polemic quickly becomes repetitive and predictable and is ultimately meaningless. It is as morally easy to be outraged by the bigoted (and ludicrous) pronouncements of Vox Day as it is to despise the buffoonery (and bigotry) of Donald Trump. It is not so easy, apparently, for us to have a conversation about the greyer areas of SF politics: the ostracism of individuals for expressing contentious views, the log-rolling openly engaged in by writers you like and whose work you admire, the cliques and hierarchies that do exist, in publishing as well as fandom, the edging aside of rigorous critical discourse in favour of mutual back-scratching and social approbium.

As a juried award, the Clarke Award is not subject to such indignities. As a juried award for the ‘best science fiction novel’ of the given year, it should have critical value, not simply in selecting a single title but in generating conversation and debate among readers and critics: what constitutes science fiction, what are the issues currently at stake, what is ‘best’? A literature exists in symbiosis with its critical hinterland, and, it seemed to me when I began taking notice in 2003, the Clarke Award was well placed to form a kind of central axis around which British science fiction might revolve, a critical hub, if you like. Added to that, it was ours – named for a British writer and indisputably British in tone, even as it opened its borders to books from all nations. This is why I became interested in it, and why, sometimes against my better judgement, I remain interested in it still. I care much less about which book actually wins than the critical process by which the selection is arrived at. I like the talk.

The Clarke Award is thirty this year, and when I was invited to be on a panel at Eastercon to commemorate and discuss this anniversary, I was happy to accept. In the brief for the panel, we were encouraged to consider ‘the influence of the award, the story the list of previous winners has to tell about SF in the UK, and how the award’s place in the field has changed over time’. A lot to think about then, and in making my own mental preparations for the panel I began by asking myself, prior to examining the documentary evidence in any way, how I thought the Clarke had evolved over time, what kind of changes I thought I’d see reflected, were I to look at the figures.

The biggest change I thought I was going to see was an increasing representation of so-called literary SF – that is, science fiction written by writers normally considered to be part of the literary mainstream, or published by non-genre imprints – among the shortlists as we approached the present day. When Margaret Atwood first won the Clarke Award back in 1987, her publisher, Faber & Faber, weren’t at all keen to have The Handmaid’s Tale entered for the award in the first place. Atwood herself seemed conflicted about what SF actually was and whether or not she wrote it, and there was a more than minor backlash against Atwood’s win amongst critics, fans, and even some of the judges. Compare that with this year, when Margaret Atwood attends the awards ceremony for The Kitschies wearing a tentacle-themed hair ornament, when more mainstream writers than ever before are experimenting with science fictional tropes and ideas they wouldn’t have been seen dead near thirty years ago, when science fiction has burst out of the geek ghetto to become mainstream entertainment. Last year’s Clarke Award was won by Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an almost universally popular novel from a devoutly literary imprint (Picador) and that was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Such a seismic shift in attitudes would surely be backed up by statistics.

As regards the question of gender and ethnic diversity, I felt less sure. Memory alone was telling me that the number of shortlistees from minority and non-Anglophone backgrounds has been vanishingly few. As for gender parity, I had the feeling that in spite of much talk and bluster on the subject, things hadn’t changed all that much on the ground. I had the idea in my mind that in terms of more diverse representation, the Clarke was lagging far behind mainstream literary prizes such as the Booker and the Costa, which had, I felt, begun to be more inclusive from way back.

What I actually discovered when I looked at the statistics was that of the twenty-nine winners to date, just six (Margaret Atwood, George Turner, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, Jane Rogers and Emily St John Mandel) have been drawn from the literary mainstream. Perhaps even more surprising is the spread. I set out thinking the number of shortlisted books from mainstream imprints would have increased particularly during the past decade – the decade of popular genre-busting novels like Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Never Let Me Go, all of which were shortlisted for the Clarke. Whereas in fact the number of non-genre SF shortlistees has remained pretty consistent and pretty low, with no more than one or at the most two mainstream titles making it to the shortlist in any given year (a bias strikingly reaffirmed in this year’s selection, possibly the most disappointingly core genre shortlist of the decade so far and certainly since 2012). The two exceptions to this rule came in 2008 and 2013, when a fifty-fifty split between genre and mainstream imprints brought forth a predictable spate of discontented rumblings from the genre heartlands. (Just to be clear: of course Ian McDonald’s Brasyl was an egregious omission. Personally I think it’s egregious and downright weird that, as one of the most technically adroit and imaginatively fecund SF writers currently working, McDonald hasn’t so far won the Clarke. But that doesn’t mean that Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army voted best science fiction novel by a woman of its decade by readers of Torque Control – should be looked at askance as some kind of dangerous infiltrator just because it happens to be published by Faber & Faber.)

So while the boundaries are pushed just about far enough to satisfy the iconoclasts, the Clarke remains determinedly an award of the genre heartlands, often drawing again and again from the same smallish pool of well established writers (of all the writers ever shortlisted for the Clarke, 29 have placed twice or more). This could in its turn have some bearing on the issue of gender parity, which has remained decidedly skewed in favour of men. While 11 out of 29 winners have been women (12 if you count Pat Cadigan’s double), from a total of 181 possible shortlist places over the 29 years, just 51 have been occupied by women. In only 5 years (1993, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2015) was gender parity achieved on the shortlist, and I was particularly shocked by the number of years – 10 – in which only one woman was shortlisted.

There has never been a year when the number of women on the Clarke Award shortlist has exceeded the number of men.

Turning to the issue of ethnic diversity, the statistics are predictably embarrassing. Out of 181 shortlist places, just 7 have been filled by writers who are black, Asian, minority ethnic or from non-Anglophone backgrounds. This figure speaks for itself: the Clarke Award’s demographic continues to be mostly white and mostly male.

Following up on my theory that the Booker Prize would show greater diversity in terms of race and gender, I was neither wholly right nor completely wrong. In terms of ethnic spread, the Booker does a little better than the Clarke in that of the 171 shortlist places available between 1987 and 2015 (the same period as the Clarke Award’s existence, in other words) 33 were filled by black, Asian and other minority writers, more if you count multiple nominations for Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rohinton Mistry. It’s worth bearing in mind that as a fraction of the whole this is only about one fifth, and when it comes to gender parity the results are hardly inspiring. Out of 29 winners, just nine have been women (10 if you count Hilary Mantel’s two wins), and as with the Clarke, the spread of shortlistees displays a wide disparity. Of the 171 shortlist places, just sixty were filled by women. While gender parity on the Booker shortlist has been achieved six times (in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2009, 2012) and with women even exceeding the number of men on three subsequent occasions (2003, 2006 and 2013) this is counterbalanced by the eight years (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2011) in which only one woman appeared on the shortlist.

It would appear that the Booker Prize is almost equally conservative in terms of diversity as the Clarke. This doesn’t reflect well on either, but it does at least prove, in a backhanded way, that the Clarke isn’t as hidebound as it could have been.

This is not to level accusations of bias at the Clarke as an institution or at its jurors. The problems of systemic bias begin much further back, at the point of entry to the industry and even before that. The Clarke submissions list is the end point, the point at which we see the results of such bias at work, and of course the judges can only judge the books that are submitted – for a further example, see the recent controversy surrounding the all-white line-up for World Book Night. The problems experienced by women, people from working class backgrounds, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and other marginalised communities attempting to enter the literary field will come from above and from below and work in circular motion. For anyone still unsure of why this matters, I would advise them to begin by reading a recent piece by the translator and publisher Deborah Smith. Her insights into how diversity actively promotes literary excellence are astute, timely, and succinctly worded and I cannot recommend her article highly enough. For science fiction readers, writers, critics and Clarke jurors on the ground, I would suggest the main task currently is to make ourselves aware of the situation and to take notice of what writers from disadvantaged communities are saying. For British science fiction, a more diverse landscape of literary works is pretty much essential for the evolution and continuing health and relevance of the genre. The Britain we inhabit now is not the Britain of the 1950s, nor even the Britain of the 1970s New Wave. We need to see the changes that are happening in reality reflected in the literature we produce and consume, which means hearing voices and opinions from all sections of our society. A retrospective SF is a fossilized genre is a dead literature. If I am excited by writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Sunjeev Sahota and Xiaolu Guo within the literary mainstream, I desperately want to see their equivalents in British science fiction, and by extension on the Clarke Award shortlist.

Which then brings us on to the question: what is the Clarke Award for and who is it aimed at? On the face of it, the answer is simple: the rules of the Clarke as laid down by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Award’s founder, and the committee that originally set up the award stated that the ACCA should be awarded to ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’, the aim being to promote science fiction to a wider public, and to reward excellence within its remit. So far, so uncontroversial. But anyone who has had anything to do with the science fiction community will know that science fiction fans – not to mention writers and critics – thrive on controversy (some might call it nit-picking) and habitually find it more or less impossible to agree amongst themselves on what constitutes science fiction, let alone best.

From the moment the award was inducted, there was in-fighting between various sections of the community as to which novels and which writers should be voted on to the shortlist. In the run-up to our Eastercon panel, the critic Edward James shared with us a highly informative essay he wrote as a contribution to the volume Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy (eds Gary Westfahl/George Slusser Greenwood Press 2002), ‘The Arthur C. Clarke Award and its Reception in Britain’, describing, amongst other things, his experiences as the Award’s first administrator:

“Should the Award go to a work which the judges recognise to be solidly within the science fiction tradition, which would no doubt be applauded by SF fans, but received blankly by an uninterested world? Or should the Award associate itself with a work that the outside world would actually recognise, to increase the standing of science fiction by hanging on the coat-tails of recognised Literature?”

James writes, thus posing the question that has divided juries and characterised the discussion around the award for the whole of its run. In 1987 the battle seems to have been between those rooting for Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and those insisting that Samuel R. Delany should take the award for Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a ‘proper’ science fiction work from an acknowledged master of the genre. “It was not an auspicious start to the Award,” James continues. “In retrospect, The Handmaid’s Tale was the wrong book.” This written in 2002, before Atwood wrote her Maddadam trilogy and long before she turned up in London wearing a tentacle on her head. Whilst admitting that The Handmaid’s Tale was ‘a very good book’, James positioned himself firmly in the Delany camp at the time and seems not to have substantially changed his opinion by the time he wrote his article fifteen years later.

A similar scandal rocked the Clarke just six years later in 1993, when the judges decided to exclude Karen Joy Fowler’s now classic Sarah Canary from the shortlist on the grounds that it was ‘not science fiction’, then went on to compound the controversy still further by eventually awarding the prize to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass, another work from a literary publisher that was deemed unworthy of the award by some sections of the SF community: Piercy was not British, and moreover she was already a successful mainstream writer who did not need the prize money or the publicity. The critic and former Clarke judge (part of the jury that awarded the prize to Atwood, in fact) John Clute threw himself into the fray, declaring that ‘the decision was so bad my ears must have deceived me’:

Body of Glass fatally gives off that gingerly feel one often detects when a mainstream author is manipulating SF devices and scenarios to illuminate her own concerns.”

Boo, hiss. Emotion, subjective viewpoint and personal odyssey in science fiction, whatever next?? I don’t think Clute would mind me having a bit of a dig here, most especially since he has recanted these vows more or less completely in the meantime, becoming as he is now a veritable mainstay of the inclusive camp. But the above quote is inestimably useful as an illustration of core science fiction ideology, which persists in this exact formulation to this day and to this hour. If Clute has moderated his approach, there are plenty who haven’t, and so the war rages on.

The most notable Clarke meltdown of the current decade must belong to 2012, remembered in some quarters as Priestgate. The most immediate and lasting effect of Priest’s polemic – something that was often overlooked in the welter of counter-rhetoric surrounding it – was that it attracted a huge amount of attention for the award. Indeed it could be argued that Christopher Priest’s essay ‘Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3’, bemoaning the quality of the 2012 shortlist in general and the alleged incompetence of the jury in particular was largely responsible for the wave of interest and popularity the Clarke began to enjoy in the mainstream press. The forthrightness of Priest’s pronouncement was treated as shocking in some quarters, and came in for considerable criticism as a result. Nonetheless, anyone reading his essay today will see that his analysis of the books remains astutely on point, and whilst no blame should be attached to individual judges – the idea of a word as strong as ‘blame’ being associated with something as ephemeral and subjective as the shortlist for a literary prize is faintly ridiculous in any case – the fact remains that the 2012 Clarke shortlist could be held up as one of the most potent examples of what can happen when the judging panel has no clear or united vision of what they are looking for – of what is ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’. The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading, and it was hardly an act of literary terrorism for Priest to point that out. I might add that if only all Clarke shortlists generated polemic this sophisticated, this concerned with literary values and the inherent potential of science fiction to be radical and progressive (as opposed to retrograde and derivative) our awareness of what the field is doing, not to mention the field itself, would be mightily the better for it.

In all fairness to the jury, it would not be difficult to mount a similar tale of woe for any year – there’s not a single literary award shortlist that doesn’t sport at least one glaring omission or freakish inclusion. The judges are only human, after all, and each will come to the table replete with their own prejudices, preconceptions, and hard-wired preferences. Take a look at this fascinating retrospective by Booker Prize jurors, and you’ll quickly see that the chances of any of them being persuaded out of their pre-formed opinions is questionable, to say the least. Unless judges are lucky enough to find themselves sitting on a jury of uncannily like minds, the shortlist for any prize, not to mention the winning entry, will continue to be something of a lottery, the hard-won result of in-fighting, barely suppressed professional rivalries, occasionally pure cussedness. Speaking for myself, the science fiction I admire most could be categorised as a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements. I am the kind of reader and writer who believes that the old kind of space fiction – intergalactic empires and people setting off in rockets to conquer the stars with no more than a tangential connection to lived or indeed scientific reality – is usually not worth bothering with in critical terms, that the core SF tropes are only interesting as literature if they are subverted to such an extent as to make something entirely different. I happen to believe that when placed next to the linguistic and metaphysical glory that is M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, something like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, though competently executed and entertaining on its own terms is revealed starkly for what it is: linguistically unspectacular, thematically redundant and completely lacking in literary irony.

When Edward James says in his paper that he considers Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to be one of the greatest works of science fiction so far written, I would agree with him heartily. When he insists that Delany’s work would be ‘largely impenetrable to outsiders’ – outsiders who have not been ‘initiated’ into the shorthand, language and conceptual frameworks of science fiction, I would beg to differ. For me, Delany is not just a great science fiction writer, he is a great writer full stop, and SIMPLGOS would be no more difficult for the general reader than any other work of modernist or postmodernist literature. It is – like Woolf or Beckett or Foster Wallace – simply a text that requires a modicum of concentration. Truly great science fiction – that is, science fiction that pays attention to itself in terms of literary values – needs no special pleading. Indeed I would go a lot further than this. I would suggest that if a work of science fiction cannot stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.

I am aware that this view is contentious. I know there will be many who disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place, and I respect that. I am even prepared to admit they may have a point. I want the old guard to go on fighting because debate is the lifeblood of culture and because it is vitally important that the critical conversation around the Clarke Award be revitalised and strengthened. For if there is a threat to the continuing success and popularity of the Clarke Award, it seems to me that the danger lies in critical apathy. In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied, culminating in a situation where last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.

At least a part of the problem resides in the fact that there is no recognised online ‘hub’ for British SF. For a number of years (from 2009 when the submissions list first started to be released), the submissions list was announced via the BSFA/Vector blog, Torque Control, where lively, informed discussions of many critical and ideological aspects of SF took place under the dedicated, engaged stewardship of Niall Harrison. In 2009, the post announcing the Clarke submissions list generated 112 comments, mainly debating the eventual shortlist and offering guesses. The following year saw an almost equal number of comments and shortlist guesses, surely a sign that interest surrounding the award was in rude health.

With the departure of Niall Harrison to take up the post of editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, the Torque Control blog became a graveyard almost overnight. Since 2013, the submissions list has been put out to tender, firstly at SFX, which has always been a media rather than a literary publication, and this year at Medium, a major online publishing platform to be sure but one that has little to no direct connection with the British science fiction community. To date, the Clarke submissions post has generated precisely three comments, only one of which could be counted as discussion of the books or possible shortlist.

When you compare this lacklustre response with the proliferation of enthusiastic and knowledgeable blogs, shadow-panels and discussion forums associated with mainstream literary prizes such as the Man Booker International, the Baileys or the Booker itself it looks pretty pathetic, especially given that it always used to be the other way around.

One of the issues that was discussed on the Clarke anniversary panel was the absence – for two years in a row now – of the traditional ‘Not the Clarke Award’ discussion from the Eastercon programme. This lively and popular item in which panellists discuss the shortlisted books in the manner of a shadow award jury has always been a crowd-puller, and in the past the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist has always been timed to allow for it to take place. In 2015 and 2016 the date set for the announcement of the shortlist has taken no account of Eastercon. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the Eastercon membership represents anything approaching the whole of the British science fiction constituency, this decision to discount it entirely does appear to be yet another missed opportunity for informed critical appreciation of the Clarke Award, as well as showing a general lack of consideration for the fanbase. Even if it does not represent the whole of the constituency, Eastercon probably does qualify as the largest gathering of BSFA members in one place during any given year. With the BSFA as one of the three organisations at the constitutional heart of the Clarke Award this surely has to count for something. Such a slap in the face for fandom might be easier to tolerate were there a genuine reason for the change. With the lack of transparency around this question currently in force, these decisions – like the earlier decision to take the submissions announcement away from Torque Control – appear completely random and pointless, not to say actively deleterious.

Another issue raised by the panel was the question of a longlist. There can be absolutely no doubt that the decision taken in 2001 by the organisers of the Booker Prize to start publishing a longlist has been of immense value in extending and intensifying the discussion around both the prize itself and literary fiction in general. The reasons for this – more books to discuss over a longer time period – should be obvious to anyone. To my mind at least it would seem equally obvious that the idea of introducing a longlist to the Clarke Award calendar is pretty much a no-brainer. In the brief discussion on Twitter (March 27th) that followed this year’s Eastercon panel, the award’s director Tom Hunter had this to say on the subject of introducing a longlist stage to the award:

I prefer our full submissions list to a longlist. If we had more time/resource I would personally prefer to do more of something else than just more lists. For me a longlist doesn’t really create anything new, just an interim list, and it’s a big extra task to create for little return.

When asked by SF critic, blogger and previous Clarke Award juror Martin Petto why we can’t have both – it having been made clear during the panel by the current chairman of the Clarke jury Andrew M. Butler that far from it being a ‘big extra task to create’, the judges are already in the habit of drawing up their own unofficial longlist for the purposes of discussion in any case – Hunter responded:

But it’s not a longlist, it’s a discussion list. Longlist implies these are best not the ones we’re still talking about.

Quite apart from the problem presented by Hunter’s apparent underestimation of a longlist’s potential in terms of the discussion and promotion of a wider pool of books and writers, it would seem logical to argue that ‘these are [the books] we’re still talking about’ precisely because these are the ones we think are ‘best’ (by whatever definition arrived at by individual jurors) at that stage. Why else would be jury be discussing them? Hunter’s argument, such that it is, seems like something of a double negative.

On the demise of Torque Control as a forum for discussion, Tom Hunter had this to add (March 29th):

[The BSFA site] is a hub I’d say, but no matter how many there are people always seem to want more. Was Torque Control ever really main BSFA product? More good initiative by a member [Niall Harrison] now doing great stuff for Strange Horizons. It was a product formed around a person thus hard to replicate even if you wanted to. And thus BSFA shouldn’t try to replicate that old energy even if people miss Torque Control as a hub. It was what, eight years ago it was in its prime? Can’t help think things change.

Things change, indeed. And I would venture that it is exactly this kind of complacency (not to mention the inappropriate use of the word ‘product’) that makes them change for the worse. More proactive ways of harnessing greater critical involvement in the award might include instituting a discussion page at the Arthur C. Clarke Award website as a host platform for commissioned reviews and critical articles, roundtable debates of science fiction and its evolution as a literature, interviews with nominees and even – gasp – the initial announcement of the submissions list. At least then people would have a logical place to congregate. (Who knows – we might even decide to call it a hub…)

The current management of the Arthur C. Clarke Award appears to have forgotten that mere publicity is not the same as having a critical hinterland, that bland puff pieces and tick-box number-crunching are not the same as a discussion about literary values, that claiming any given shortlist as ‘great’, ‘exciting’ or even ‘diverse’ is shallow and pointless when that claim is not backed up with more rigorous discourse about the merits of the novels shortlisted and what exactly constitutes ‘great’ or ‘exciting’ or ‘diverse’. For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to survive as the beloved and respected and valuable institution it avowedly is, we need passionate critical engagement, we need personal involvement over a wide demographic. We need readers to feel excited by the idea of discovering new books, excited enough to want to talk about them afterwards. To argue about what is best and what is science fiction.

(NB: A significant portion of this essay was drafted prior to Eastercon. Any statistics quoted or referred to therefore do not include this year’s recently announced Clarke Award shortlist.)

#weird2016: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

BlackTom-cover“So I sought out others, entirely unlike myself, and when they spoke of secret wisdom, I listened. What men like myself would dismiss as superstition or worse, pure evil, I learned to cherish. The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch. Because to watch would be to understand the play isn’t being staged for us. To learn we simply do not matter to the players at all.”

And so Robert Suydam – the rich and evil genius of the piece – goes on to speak to Tommy Tester – the black Tom of the title – of a King who sleeps at the bottom of the ocean:

“The return of the Sleeping King would mean the end of your people’s wretchedness. The end of all the wreck and squalor of a billion lives. When he rises, he wipes away the follies of mankind. And he is only one of many. They are the Great Old Ones. Their footfalls cause mountains to topple. One gaze strikes ten million bodies dead. But imagine the fortunes of those of us who were allowed to survive!”

Has Robert Suydam not seen Remembrance of the Daleks?? Certainly Tommy is not convinced they should be messing in with all this:

Tommy remained on the porch long after Robert Suydam shut the door. A bright morning in Flatbush, that’s what Tommy saw, but he had a tough time walking down the steps, down the treelined path, and out to the sidewalk. He kept expecting he’d set one foot off the porch and right into an ocean where the Sleeping King waited. And why couldn’t this happen? That’s what paralysed him. If all the rest could be true, then why not so much else? 

But with $200 in his pocket, and the promise of $200 more if he returns to Suydam’s mansion the following evening, Tommy finds himself wondering if a second visit might not be in order after all. ‘The old man had been right,’ he acknowledges. ‘Tommy Tester did enjoy a good reward’. And when Tommy returns home to discover that his beloved father has been murdered by the odious detective, ‘Mr Howard’, he begins to see Suynam’s prophecy through new eyes:

What was indifference compared to malice?

“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.

*

We are in New York in 1924. Tommy Tester is a small-time hustler and musician, getting by the best he can in a world that is predisposed, when it notices him at all, to find him inferior. Tommy knows how to duck and dive though, and with loyal friends and a close relationship with his father, he’s getting by OK. Until the three vectors of his fate – his meeting with Suydam, the death of his father, his theft of a certain piece of notorious arcana – intersect, that is, and Tom realises the world he has been making do with is no longer enough for him.

The events and personages of The Ballad of Black Tom are closely modelled upon those of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, and LaValle’s novella is in essence, an impassioned response to that tale, and the seething, furious racism it contains. In Lovecraft’s New York, the eldritch horrors of Parker Place are laid directly at the door of its mainly immigrant population. His story, which is nine-tenths exposition, is an expression of fear and loathing, a certain proof, for any who still need one, of Lovecraft’s bigotry and dis-ease concerning ethnic minorities. LaValle returns Harlem and Red Hook to the people who live there. He makes the protagonist of his story a black man – and if Black Tom ends up a monster, we as readers are left in no doubt as to who has made him one.

In Lovecraft’s story, the detective Malone, like so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, prefers to look away from what he thinks he has seen. LaValle’s Malone is not given that choice.

There is powerful material here. Tommy’s initial journey out to the mainly white suburb of Flatbush, where his very presence on the train exposes him to personal danger, is a powerful reminder of the violence and opposition faced by African Americans during Lovecraft’s time simply in living their lives. The circumstances surrounding the death of Tommy’s father are particularly devastating when viewed in the knowledge that similarly monstrous injustices are still being perpetrated on a more or less daily basis. Aside from its social and political commentary though, The Ballad of Black Tom should be applauded for making of ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ an actual story. It is a gripping yarn, featuring real characters with real motivations – a claim that can not safely be made for the original tale. That HPL and Sonia make their own cameo appearance is a nice touch also.

What LaValle’s story does not have though is Lovecraft’s language. For all its fomenting lunacy, there is no escaping the fact that HPL’s way with a sentence was something special:

Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are already rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things. 

LaValle’s prose, grounded and sound in both mind and body, seems pedestrian by comparison.

*

(Do check out this great interview with Victor LaValle at Electric Literature here, and also this one at SF Signal here.)

Save the Curzon Soho

When I first moved to London in the mid 2000s, the Curzon Soho cinema was one of the first venues I discovered that felt uniquely, precisely tailored to suit my needs and tastes. That they were showing remarkable films goes without saying – but coming from a provincial city I found myself spoiled for choice in that respect in every direction anyway. No – the Curzon offered something more, something extra, something harder to define. Was it the comfy chairs downstairs in the bar, where you could sit and work unhindered or hang out with friends before or after the movie you had come to see? The upstairs coffee bar, stylish and very London and yet inclusive and inviting enough for anyone totally new to the place to be able to enter without feeling like a fish out of water? The marvellous film posters and DVDs on display in the foyer? The informed friendliness of the staff? It was all these things and more. The Curzon felt like a venerable London cultural institution that truly was open and welcoming to everyone. I loved the place, still love it dearly, think of it often, visit when I can, still feel it as one of the things about London I miss most.

When I read in yesterday’s Observer (in an excellent article by film critic Jonathan Romney) that the Curzon is under threat of being demolished in yet another tranche of Crossrail mayhem, I felt and still feel profoundly depressed. It’s not just the Curzon, it’s everything. Little by little, London is being corporatised. Ordinary citizens feel, more and more, as if they have no power and no say in their environment, their political culture, the future of their social and cultural institutions. If I compare the Charing Cross Road/Shaftesbury Avenue area as I first came to know it in the 1980s – a warren of independent bookstores and corner cafes and newsagents and general old-London-ness – with how it is currently being reformatted, I feel choked up with sadness and an impotent kind of anger. I dare not research the number of bookstores on CXR that have been forced to close due to deliberate – yes, because none of this is chance, it is an overall plan – hikes in ground rent, because it makes me want to throw things.

In a remarkable 2014 interview with Ned Beauman, William Gibson, himself something of a part-time Londoner, spoke of the creeping gentrification of London in forthright terms:

“Some [of my lifelong Londoner friends] just don’t seem to see that there’s anything happening to [the city], even though it seems to me to be such a radical change. It amazes me when people argue: ‘Oh, it’s only happening in that neighbourhood, and if that’s no longer fun we’ll just move.’ I thought that was what the developers wanted you to do so you can gentrify the next bit.”

Even in my relatively short period of close intimacy with London, I saw the city being forcibly remoulded in ways that made me uneasy.  This continues to happen, faster and faster with every year that passes, and with Londoners – I mean actual Londoners, people who do the work and clean the streets and love the bones of the place – feeling ever more disenfranchised from crucial decisions. The same as is happening in the rest of the country, in other words, only even faster.

Yes, it makes me angry. It makes me sullen and paralysed with anger. It seems to me that the best thing we can do in the face of this is to fight back in the small ways that are open to us – writing, speaking, seeing, thinking even – in the knowledge that if enough of us stand up and speak out, then some of the worst decisions at least can be halted or reversed.

If you are a Londoner, an ex-Londoner who still feels the place in their soul, a person who cares about cinema or the arts or social history or city architecture – any or all of the above – then please sign the petition to save the Curzon Soho. As the Curzon’s manager Ally Clow says in Romney’s article. the cinema has its own sense of community, its own constituency:

“It’s a mix of people who come once a year, people who come every week, and people who come every day who use this bar as an office – they’ll have a couple of cups of coffee, do meetings, hold auditions for films. People feel at home here. It’s an oasis of calm and culture.”

If we want to save the things we care about, we need to show we care. Signing the petition is something anyone can do, in about ten seconds. Please do this. At least it’s a start.

#weird2016: The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud

ballingrud,filthEric wouldn’t let go of the guy’s neck. He hit him again a few more times, and when the bottle came around once more he took it on the cheek. Blood sprayed onto the floor, the pool table, across his own face. Eric made a high-pitched noised that seemed to signal a transition into another state of being, that seemed to carve this moment from the rational world and hold it separate. It seemed that another presence had entered the room, something invisible, some blood-streaked thing crawling into the light.

Will is a bartender at Rosie’s, an all-night venue in one of the New Orleans’s less fashionable districts. Working the late shift he sees all kinds of things, not all of them pleasant, but Will doesn’t mind. He’s used to breaking up fights, clearing up the mess afterwards. His job means he can hang loose, live easy. There are always plenty of women around, and he has his best mate, Alicia, to share the ups and downs. Everything’s cool. Except it’s not. The cockroaches seem to be multiplying in Rosie’s Bar – Will imagines them swirling up from their nests in the pit of hell – and when the latest late-night fight gets out of hand, one piece of debris Will takes home with him does not prove so easy to get rid of as he first imagined. Suddenly, Will has bigger problems on his mind than how to decide between his current girlfriend Carrie and his not-so-platonic friend Alicia.

It was interesting reading this right after Scott Nicolay’s debut collection Ana Kai Tangata (review to follow soon). On the face of it, Will seems closely related to Nicolay’s protagonists: disaffected, shiftless, a total tool in his attitude to women. There are differences, though – Will does have glimmerings of self-awareness, but mainly it’s in the way Ballingrud is prepared to show, through his writing, that both Carrie and Alicia have their own agenda, their own agency, and that their biggest problem, actually, is Will. Fair dos to Will himself in finally realising this:

A terrible weight suspended between his lungs, threatening to upend him. He felt the heat of shame and grief gather in his face. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. He made his way to the bedroom and excavated a crumpled duffel bag from the recesses of the closet. He began to shove clothes into it, heedless of what he might actually need. Just random things. When he walked to the bathroom to get his toothbrush and his razor, he heard a stifled sob in the kitchen.

This was the world he’d built. This was his kingdom. 

The apotheosis of bad breakups for Will, then. And somehow I don’t think it’s going to matter all that much, what he puts in that duffel bag…

The story itself – a neat little twist on the contamination-by-video scenario firmly cemented in the horror genre by the first Ring movie – is compelling and doom-laden and finally horrific enough to keep you interested. No, scratch that – there’s no way you’re going to put this This is Horror chapbook down once you’ve started reading it. There’s a roughness around the edges, in parts – by the time Ballingrud’s writing has fully gathered momentum in the second half, the thing’s almost done. This story isn’t as finely wrought as Nicolay’s finest – Ballingrud’s language is very, very good in parts, but an overall consistency seems lacking. On the whole, I think ‘The Visible Filth’ would actually have benefited from being double the length, or even longer. I want to know more about the book Carrie was researching. I do definitely want to know more about whose phone that was. There’s so much more here that Ballingrud could have chosen to explore. I understand the argument for not revealing everything – but in this case it seems a damn shame not to have given this story its head, to have allowed it to become the novella it so clearly wanted to be.

Solid effort, though. Solid and enjoyable and menacing. That last page or two – why did you go there, Will? Why? (Yeah, he was a dork, but I did kind of feel sorry for him in the end.)

#weird2016: Red Shift by Alan Garner

red shift garnerThe motorway roared silently. Birds skittered the water in flight to more distant reeds, and the iron water lay again, flat light reflecting no sky. The caravans and the birches. Tom.

Sometimes you read a novel that generates such a personal response – that feels so profoundly, so intimately yours – it’s hard to articulate. It’s a feeling of blessed serendipity, like stumbling across something in the road, something half-buried in dirt, and discovering it’s that treasured thing you lost some years before and thought never to see again.

As a reader and as a writer, these are the moments you chase but can never predict.

All of this happened, in this case, because of something that did not happen. When I was asked if I’d like to be on a panel at Eastercon discussing the landscapes of Alan Garner’s fiction. I regretfully had to decline, stating that aside from stumbling upon and loving The Owl Service – both book and TV series – when I was twelve, I hadn’t read Garner since, and really didn’t know his work except in outline. Which of course immediately set me thinking: why didn’t I, when Garner’s oeuvre, with its emphasis on landscape and myth, lies so close to a vital seam of my own literary interests?

It seemed like a major oversight to me. And so later that day, I purchased the eBook of Garner’s Red Shift, widely thought to be the cornerstone of his work and of his thinking. We happened to be travelling to London the following day, which gave me four hours’ worth of train journey in which to read the novel more or less uninterrupted, which I think is how this extraordinary book should ideally be encountered.  At a little under 200 pages, it is not a long novel. So when you learn that it was six years in the making, you might feel surprised – until you begin to experience it, and realise how intact it is, how entire unto itself, how every word contracted into this interweaving, this rope-hard tapestry, has been personally chosen and considered, how this novel – deceptively simple on the page – truly is like that found thing in the road, that axe head: clodded with dirt yet pristine, hard, like the ages, like the granite fundament of the island that inspired it.

A cursory reading of Red Shift might leave you with the impression that in its modern sections especially it is dated. It is hard to imagine many older teenagers these days getting so hung up on what their parents think, or becoming mired in ideas of sex as being sordid or sinful. Yet read – persist – and you will find there is something so heartrending, so universal in what Jan and Tom experience that it still works, in spite of its awkwardness or even because of it. It is interesting, too, that the women in Garner’s story are as powerful as the men, if not more so. It is Jan, in the end, who is able to make the transition from child to adult, a transition Tom struggles with until the end.

I found the novel’s evocation of the 1970s particularly resonant.  The sequence where Tom and Jan first discover the road to Barthomley, walking out across the railway sidings at Crewe seemed, to me, like the summer of 1976 itself: instantaneously mythical, a hush in time, a touchstone memory:

They walked through undulating country, golden with light from the cold sun. 

“That’s where I’d like to try for, one day,” said Jan. “I see it from the train, and then I know you’re near. It looks like a lonely old man sitting up there.”

“We’ll go,” said Tom. “But I doubt it’ll be today, unless you feel like running.”

“Is it a castle?”

“A folly. Not real. It’s called Mow Cop.”

“I like mountains. Can we go, even if it is only a folly?”

“Sure, I said. But how about something closer for today?”

Across the fields a red sandstone church tower stood from a valley. The landscape was quiet, scattered farms of black timber, and the lane leading towards the church. 

It is their Grand Meulnes moment, instantly in decline, like radioactive half-life, from the second it is exposed to the light.

It says everything about Garner’s skill in imagining, that the novel’s strands from earlier timelines – one set in Roman Britain, one set during the English Civil War – often and increasingly appear to be running contemporaneously with the modern day section. As the novel nears its end, these time-jumps – seamless, unannounced and unaccounted-for – can occur several times in a single page. The passages describing the massacre at Barthomley, in their terrifying understatement, are a masterclass of literary economy.

What is most modern about this novel – what makes it a work of modernism – is that it offers no explanation for itself, no long-winded exposition of what is happening. We must run to catch up, to stay level. We must enter into the spirit of this thing, not caring too much if there are moments when we doubt our understanding of what is going on.

And even as Red Shift eschews objective realism in favour of a more subjective brand of expressionism, still it retains the rough-hewn, adze-sharpened, square-buttressed granite persistence of the mediaeval. Like the sinuously evolving ballads of British folklore, its abiding loyalty is to the land. We pass through it, before passing it on.

It is with eerie synchronicity that I came to Red Shift immediately after life writer constantinereading David Constantine’s acutely felt second novel The Life Writer, which shares a similar relationship with land not a million miles away from Barthomley church. It may even be that reading the Constantine, which feels intuitively closer to my own practice – Red Shift is mainly dialogue, which I don’t write much of; The Life Writer is mainly internalised reflection, which I do – actively prepared me in some way for reading the Garner.

However and whatever has happened, it feels significant for me as a writer in a way I did not anticipate.

*

Sadly, we didn’t arrive at Eastercon until gone 5.30 on the Friday, so it was too late for me to attend the Alan Garner panel even as a spectator. But what we were able to do instead, on our way back from Scotland – we spent a week in the Highlands immediately following Eastercon – was stop off at the places where the key action of Red Shift takes place. It had been raining for most of the morning, but as we drove into Cheshire the weather changed, flooding the countryside with evening sunshine. The landscape felt utterly unchanged from how it had appeared to me as I read about it in the novel. I was thrilled to the bone.

The White Lion, Barthomley

The White Lion, Barthomley

St Bertoline's Church, Barthomley

St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley

The Folly at Mow Cop

The Folly at Mow Cop

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.

Announcing Five Stories High

5 Stories High cover imageThis one’s been in the pipeline for a while, but now that Solaris have revealed the full line-up and cover art I can officially announce that I am one-fifth of Five Stories High, a new anthology project dreamed up by editor Jonathan Oliver and comprising five individual novellas, linked together by the idea of a house, the mysterious and sometimes dangerous Irongrove Lodge:

“Five Stories High explores one of the classic tropes of horror – the haunted house, but does so with five extraordinary writers who know how to stretch the bounds of genre to startling and terrifying effect. Irongrove Lodge welcomes you in, bids you stay a while, while secretly hoping you’ll never leave.”

Each writer’s vision of Irongrove Lodge will be unique to them, and with writers as distinctive as K. J. Parker, Sarah Lotz, Robert Shearman and Tade Thompson on the table of contents, the five journeys into the house’s shadowy interior are bound to be disturbingly different. My own novella, Maggots, is about Willy Randle, a character who was originally going to appear in The Rift, but who got squeezed out when the narrative took a different turn. I was fond of Willy though, and the story of what happened to him during his first term at university felt so compelling to me that I was reluctant to let go of him. When Jonathan Oliver invited me to come on board with Five Stories High I leapt at the chance, quickly realising that here was the perfect opportunity to give Willy a story all to himself.

After reading the completed novella, Jon had this to say:

“Magnificent. It has the feel of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle in places, and the darkness is tense as fuck.”

Which has to be my favourite cover blurb of all time!

Five Stories High is due for release later this year. You have been warned.

A conversation with Anne Charnock

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I’ve enjoyed and admired Anne Charnock’s first two novels, the Philip K. Dick Award- and Kitschies-shortlisted A Calculated Life, and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which was published towards the end of last year. I found A Calculated Life to be one of the most fascinating and imaginative explorations of the post-human condition that I’ve yet read, and in Sleeping Embers especially, with its interwoven narrative threads and themes of art and memory, I sensed that Anne and I shared some common interests as writers. I was therefore delighted when Anne invited me to take part in an online ‘conversation’, the aim being to examine and hopefully illuminate some hidden aspects of what we write, and how we approach our chosen subject matter. Neither an interview nor a traditional Q&A, the conversation format allowed for a more free-flowing discussion, more approximate to what you might expect in a live panel event. As we both hoped at the outset, it threw up some unexpected insights. That it was a great pleasure to ‘talk’ to Anne should go without saying.

ANNE: Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and although he gives greatACharnockPortrait copy [458685] advice throughout, I was curious about one of his comments on the subject of theme. He feels that the theme of a novel is something that emerges in the first draft or after the first draft, and can then be enhanced in subsequent reworking. But for me the theme, or concept, comes first, before I start outlining and plotting a piece of fiction. How do you view the importance of theme? Does it vary from one writing project to another?

NINA: I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it several times, just for the pleasure of King’s voice, and it’s the one book I recommend unequivocally when people ask me if ‘how to’ guides for writers are any good. As a new writer, what On Writing offered me, most of all, was the permission to do things my way. Many of the writing guides I’d read previously – and yes, I did love reading them – seemed very keen on pre-planning, on writing chapter summaries and on knowing exactly what was going to happen before you started. This made me feel nervous because I instinctively felt that those methods weren’t going to work for me. What King seemed to be saying was ‘screw that – there are no rules. Do what feels right’. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I don’t remember King’s exact words on theme versus plot – but what I do know is that for me, plot has always been the element of narrative I try to think about least consciously, particularly when I’m making a start on a new piece of work. I’ve always started with character – or to put it more precisely, with a particular character in a particular situation. I name my character – character names are very important to me as they seem to form a nest of associations all by themselves – and I think about what might be worrying them, what problems they face, how they might react, who they might know. Theme tends to arise naturally from these thoughts, and from the situation. Theme is important to me, as an anchor – as the box everything fits inside, if you like. Plot is something I have to trust will attach itself to the theme as I go along. The more I write the more the plot begins to define itself. Often I won’t know how a story is going to work itself out until I’m at least half way through. But this is why second drafts are so important to my working process. When I start my second draft, I begin writing the book again from the beginning, essentially – only this time I know where it’s going, I know what the plot entails, I know how things end. Which means I can foreground certain details, strengthen certain narrative threads. I love second drafts! They are so much less scary.

How about your drafting process? Do you like to edit on the page, refining the narrative organically as you progress, or do you write right to the end and then second-draft everything from the beginning?

ANNE: Like you, Nina, I let the narrative unfold during the drafting process. This feels more natural to me. And because I ‘feel my way’ with the narrative, I now find I’m attracted to writing in present tense, as though I’m experiencing events alongside my characters. I edit at a sentence level as I go along—which can be very slow! However, this does mean that when I reach the end of the manuscript I don’t need to redraft from the beginning. I might add a scene or move a scene. But I’m mainly fine-tuning the characters and dialogue, making ‘fixes’ to the narrative, looking for inconsistencies, fact-checking and so on.

anne.charnock.embers

Throughout the drafting, I fill in a spreadsheet that summarises the narrative developments in each chapter. Sometimes the narrative develops in such a way that I know I’ll need to make adjustments in earlier chapters. I add notes on the spreadsheet to remind myself to make specific changes in the next draft. And I do enjoy this process of refinement.

In my current writing project, I’ve taken a different approach. I’m first-drafting this novel with less on-the-go editing. I’m conscious of my deadline with this project so I feel more comfortable pushing forward. I’m still keeping a spreadsheet of the narrative development, and this is really important because this novel has a highly fragmented structure. I expect I’ll write additional fragments when I’ve finished the first full draft. With each of my main characters in this novel, I’m interested in the specific events in his or her back-story that has moulded their character: nurture over nature, I suppose.

I know from your own writing, Nina, that you’re interested in fragmentation. I’d like to know what draws you to this type of structure.

the race cover (2)NINA: It’s going to be interesting for you to see how the quicker-first-draft method suits you! I imagine your spreadsheets to be a little like Nabokov’s famous index cards – a way of examining characters and events in isolation from their story. A fascinating approach.

I first encountered fragmented narratives through the work of Keith Roberts and his great novel Pavane, also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. This would have been in my mid-teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction pretty indiscriminately. Most of the stuff I read then – Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, Pohl – has fallen by the wayside for me, but both Pavane and Roadside Picnic, and their authors, remain touchstone influences. Thinking about them now, I realise that when I first read these novels I didn’t think of them as ‘fragmented narratives’, I simply accepted this method of telling a story as something that was natural and intrinsic to those books, and got on with enjoying them. And yet they made a powerful impact – something about the thrill of discovery, the way my own imagination played a vital role in linking everything together. I wouldn’t have analysed it that way at the time, but I think I found something very satisfying in the idea of the reader interacting with the writer to create a complete picture.

Fragmented narratives are often described as being complex, and of course they can be, but I happen to believe that large numbers of readers actively enjoy the element of mental participation this approach encourages. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven have found immense popular appeal. Similarly, movies such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro Inarritu’s Babel, which both involve intricately interlinking storylines, have enjoyed Oscar-winning success. I think readers can actually tolerate narrative complexity to a far greater degree than the publishing industry sometimes gives them credit for. One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because readers feel directly involved with what’s happening on the page, and I think the clue-hunting aspect of fragmented narratives performs this same function.

I loved the three-stranded structure you used in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Did the experience gained in writing this novel help you in planning this next book? You say the structure of this new novel is ‘highly fragmented’ – can you tell me how it differs from the construction of Sleeping Embers?

ANNE: Thanks, Nina. I like the comparison you make with crime fiction! I do have fun introducing clues and connections when I’m drafting a fragmented novel. I’ve always liked writers who play around with structure. So the novels that come to mind are Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, Louisa Hall’s Speak. When I start to list them—and I could list so many more—I begin to see how popular this form is among writers.

My work-in-progress already has a title—Dreams Before the Start of Time. I started drafting this novel some time ago, but I broke off to begin Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. So the influence happened in reverse; the fragmented structure of Dreams Before encouraged me to tackle Sleeping Embers as a novel set in three time periods—Renaissance, current day and twenty-second century—with the narrative oscillating between the three settings.

In contrast, Dreams Before the Start of Time is linear, moving forward from the very near future to a hundred years from now, and it follows the lives of two women who are close friends. A handful of chapters are written from their points of view, but most are told from the points of view of characters who are connected either closely or tangentially to the two women.

I don’t regard this new novel as a sequel, but one of my main characters is Toni Monroe who is a character in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. I still felt a strong connection to Toni, and her age fitted neatly with the setting of my new novel. This brings me on to say that one of my quests in writing speculative fiction is to create characters who engage the reader on an emotional level. I don’t want the reader to envisage the future in a detached way. For me, an exemplar novel—one that’s compelling in an emotional sense—is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I wondered if you could identify your own writing quest, and if there’s a single novel that would indicate your goal.

NINA: I love the sound of Dreams Before the Start of Time, and especially the idea of Toni as a continuing character. You mention David Mitchell here – a writer who is now well known for extending the life of his characters beyond the frame of a single novel – and indeed this is something I enjoy doing myself. I first experimented with recurring characters in my story cycle The Silver Wind, where the same characters crop up time and again, although not always in the same roles. (Stephen King has a lot of fun with a similar idea in his twinned novels Desperation and The Regulators, which are favourites for me amongst his work.) I’m currently working on a story that features a character from my first collection, A Thread of Truth, a character I hope to write about at greater length in a future novel.IMG_0056

As you say, it’s difficult to let go of these people sometimes!

Never Let Me Go is a fascinating choice for your ‘quest’ novel – humane and chilling and very much in the tradition of British speculative fiction – I’m thinking of novels like D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a key novel of the SF New Wave which examines anxieties about future technological development through a very human lens.

I do like this idea of having a writing quest! I suppose if I had to pin down what it is that I’m going after with my writing, it would be the preservation of memories, of moments in time, and how memory is always this peculiar and sometimes problematic blend of objective ‘truth’ and subjective worldview, which is by its nature partial, and often unreliable. I am in love with the weirdness at the heart of mimesis, and the writer who encapsulates this in her writing most perfectly of all for me is Iris Murdoch. There is something exalted about her work, a sense of heightened reality that shines a light on ordinary objects and occurrences and reveals their hidden magic – and madness. If I had to choose one of her novels to take with me to a desert island it would be The Book and the Brotherhood, which I’ve read four times already and could start reading again tomorrow with equal enjoyment.

I would pair that novel with works like The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and The Girl in the Swing by Richard Adams as examples of British Weird, a tradition that I feel is central to my own practice and allegiance. Do you think of yourself as being a particularly British writer? Or do you see yourself as having more in common with the new internationalism that is beginning to characterise contemporary science fiction?

ANNE: I suppose I do think of myself as a British writer. My speculative fiction fits pretty neatly with your comment on SF New Wave. But I’m not so keen on pinning these things down—I don’t wish to feel any obligation to carrying on doing what I’ve done before, if you see what I mean.

charnock calculated lifeI’m pleased you mention Iris Murdoch. I’m also a fan of Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels including The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World. These are disorientating and distressing reads, almost fantastical, because as the narratives unfold you don’t know what or who to believe. It’s rather like the slipperiness of memory that you refer to. I feel these two novels anticipated Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin. We can’t seem to nail the truth in these novels.

So, you’ve chosen your books for the desert island! I played this game at my local book group’s Christmas party. I chose Michael Cunningham’s short novel, The Hours. I do regard this novel as a perfect example of a fragmented structure, linked as it is to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (I’d need to take her novel too!). I’d spend my time on the desert island working out all the connections between the two novels, and lapping up Cunningham’s beautiful writing style.

I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work in progress, but can you tell me about the novel you’ve recently completed, and any other fiction in the pipeline?

NINA: That’s an interesting point you make about the way Doris Lessing’s ‘Ben’ novels anticipate Shriver’s Kevin and I agree absolutely. An aspect of Lessing’s career that is not discussed anywhere near enough either within the mainstream or in genre circles is her lifelong fascination with speculative ideas. There are the two novels you mention, which as you say teeter on the brink of the fantastic, her Shikasta series, Briefing for a Descent into HellThe Memoirs of a Survivor (both of which are briefly discussed in my own novel The Race) and also later works such as The Cleftand Mara and Dan. I’ve noticed an unwillingness within genre communities to admit the importance of writers like Lessing and of course Margaret Atwood, to dismiss them as dabblers or ‘tourists’, an attitude which is frankly ridiculous when it could be argued that half of Lessing’s output is speculative, when Atwood has not only produced a novel – The Handmaid’s Tale – which will stand as one of the core works of the SF genre for decades to come, but has also, with the Maddadam trilogy and now The Heart Goes Last, dedicated the whole of the past decade more or less exclusively to writing science fiction. I could speculate for a long time upon the reasons for this kind of inverse genre snobbery, but suffice it to say that I think it needs to stop! Science fiction has much to draw from the mainstream in terms of depth and craft, just as mimetic literature is finding itself reinvigorated by speculative ideas – ideas a lot of mainstream writers wouldn’t have been seen dead trying out even two decades ago. Literature is reactive as well as proactive. As writers, we see something someone else is doing and immediately begin to consider how we might bring something like it into our own work. We’re magpies! Reading widely – and letting that reading have its way with us – is a large part of how we learn to advance as writers.

My second novel is called The Rift. It began as an alien abduction story, or something like that, but morphed into something different as I was writing. It’s the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie, who owing to unexplained circumstances have not seen one another for twenty years. When Julie unexpectedly returns, Selena is left feeling that the life she has lived since Julie’s disappearance has been a lie. It’s a novel about memory, and loss, but there is some weird alien stuff in there, too. The Rift is scheduled for publication in summer 2017. I’m currently in the early stages of thinking about my next book, which at the moment mainly consists of a file full of notes and a long list of books I need to read. I am, however, cautiously excited…

ANNE: On the subject of magpies, I agree! We advance by reading widely, and reacting to other writers’ work. Appropriation is a minor theme in Sleeping Embers—how all the arts are enriched and energized by revisiting the past, by borrowing from other art forms, and using other artists’ work as a springboard.

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Well, Anne and I both agreed that this could have run and run, but we had to bring it to a close somewhere! For those of you planning to be at Eastercon, you can catch Anne in conversation for real on the Sunday at 4pm, this time with Matt Hill. They’ll be discussing the influence of Manchester on their writing, among many other things I’m sure. It’s bound to be a fascinating discussion. In the meantime, you can visit Anne’s blog here, and of course read her books!

Farewell, dear Max

One of the greatest British composers of our era, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has died. He was eighty-one.

With other members of the Manchester school, he arose to prominence as a leading light of the British avant garde. Even as Master of the Queen’s Music, he never lost that fighting spirit, that radical edge. He wrote for us of our landscape, our times, our history and our secrets. He told ghost stories and sang wedding songs. He never stopped growing as an artist. His music holds something for everyone.

Only last week I was listening to his symphonic ballet The Beltane Fire – I’m doing a lot of reading and researching and listening in the area of landscape and belief at the moment – and thinking what conviction, what passion his music always carries, whatever form it happens to be taking.

He was so generous with his time and his energy. His legacy is permanent, and timeless. Thank you for what you gave us, Max. Rest well.

And they’re off! Clarke Award submissions 2016

So – we now know that the total number of books submitted for this year’s Clarke Award was 113. You will find the full list here, together with some analysis of the figures. Personally I think it would be equally interesting and relevant, certainly in literary terms, to track the percentage of genre versus mainstream imprints. I find it fascinating to look at how far and how successfully science fiction is permeating the literary mainstream, and the effect this may be having – or not – on the genre heartlands.

With this in mind, I want to focus, firstly, on those books that immediately leap out as being the most interesting contenders for me personally – a personal longlist, if you like:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)

Acts of the Assassins – Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind – Anne Charnock

If Then – Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot)

Speak – Louisa Hall (Orbit)

Wake – Elizabeth Knox (Corsair)

Dark Star – Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)

Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber)

SNUFF – Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)

The Dead Lands – Benjamin Percy (Hodder)

The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

The Shore – Sara Taylor (Heinemann)

The Weightless World – Anthony Trevelyan (Galley Beggar)

Find Me – Laura Van Den Berg (Del Rey)

The Fifth Dimension – Martin Vopenka (Barbican)

The Swan Book – Alexis Wright (Constable)

That’s eighteen books – enough to make three complete shortlists, in other words. Add to those the following – books that wouldn’t necessarily come top of my own reading list, but solidly worthy contenders that will almost certainly be featuring in any upcoming discussions among the judges:

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)

Mother of Eden – Chris Beckett (Corvus)

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder)

The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz)

Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie (Orbit)

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)

The Galaxy Game – Karen Lord (JFB)

Something Coming Through – Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Luna: New Moon – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)

Planetfall – Emma Newman (Roc)

Touch – Claire North (Orbit)

Crashing Heaven – Al Robertson (Gollancz)

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

Glorious Angels – Justina Robson (Gollancz)

Regeneration – Stephanie Saulter (JFB)

The Promise of the Child – Tom Toner (Gollancz)

The Just City – Jo Walton (Corsair)

…and that gives us another eighteen. Which is thirty-six books in all, six shortlists’ worth, and a solid third of the overall number of submissions. For anyone interested in odd statistics of my own, I’ve been breaking down the shortlist in this way for about five years now and the percentage of what I think of as credible contenders has always been roughly the same. Anyway, I feel fairly confident in predicting that our winner is hiding amongst this lot somewhere.

Moving on to shortlist guesses. First off, my own personal choices – the books I would choose (as of this moment and not having read everything) if I were sole judge and jury:

ACTS OF THE ASSASSINS – Richard Beard. WHY? Philip Hensher liked this and I’ve seen several other people whose opinion I trust saying good things about it, too. I read the Kindle preview and found the style, approach and form immediately compelling. I felt eager for more, both of this book and from this writer.

SLEEPING EMBERS OF AN ORDINARY MIND – Anne Charnock. WHY? Charnock employs speculative ideas in a subtle and sensitive interweaving of three interconnected narratives. Almost like a mini Cloud Atlas, Sleeping Embers demonstrates how lives and futures remain connected, even at a distance of hundreds of years. It is a beautiful book and Charnock is a writer of real merit.

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because I consider this to be one of the most complex and important works of British science fiction to have appeared in recent years.

THE SHORE – Sara Taylor. WHY? Because this is a superb work of literature from a seriously talented new writer. Because I loved this book unreservedly and still think about it often. Because the speculative elements are subtle and sensitively handled (one of the most interesting post-apocalyptic endings I’ve read). Because I’m already eager to read it again, less than a year after first encountering it. Because it’s a wonderful book in every way.

FIND ME – Laura Van Den Berg. WHY? This novel starts out reading like a conventional post-apocalyptic story but gradually morphs into something quite different: a meditation on outsider status and contemporary America that is powerful and moving. I loved the characters. I loved the weirdness. I loved the evocation of depleted landscapes.

THE SWAN BOOK – Alexis Wright. WHY? Because this is an important book from an important writer. Wright’s use of language is extraordinary. The Swan Book is speculative in every sense of the word. Although it was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize in its native Australia, it hasn’t received half the attention it should have here in the UK, especially within genre circles.

There’s no way the actual shortlist is going to look like that, obviously, not least because the actual Clarke jury is made up of five people, not one, and each with their various tastes and priorities coming into play. We know only too well that no one person’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ in science fiction is the same as another’s, and with this in mind, I’m going to hazard a guess of how the shortlist – revealed April 27th – might realistically line up (again with the proviso that I have not read all the books):

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because, seriously, if this book doesn’t make the shortlist there’s something amiss.

SPEAK – Louisa Hall. WHY? I’ve not read this yet but it looks wonderfully interesting and I’m hoping the judges will put it forward.

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT – Dave Hutchinson. WHY? Already shortlisted for the Kitschies, the second instalment of Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is easily as weird, interesting and distinctive as the first. It’s good to see Hutchinson beginning to attain his rightful place within British science fiction, and I think there’s a good chance that Europe at Midnight will follow in the footsteps of its predecessor Europe in Autumn, thus landing him on the shortlist for a second year running.

THE THING ITSELF – Adam Roberts. WHY? Again, I haven’t read this yet but the premise is fantastic and I’ve heard almost unanimous praise for it among critics I respect. I was pleased to see it make the Kitschies shortlist and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it here, too.

AURORA – Kim Stanley Robinson. WHY? This book has garnered vast swathes of effusive outpourings among core SF readers, and Stan Robinson is one of the best stylists among core SF writers. This novel seems to appeal to most sections of the SF community on one way or another and I’d be amazed if it didn’t feature.

GLORIOUS ANGELS – Justina Robson. WHY? I started this, got about a third of the way through. Not really my thing, but I can see that it’s a complex, thoughtful and interesting novel and I think those judges who lean further towards core SF than I do will better appreciate its qualities. I have a hunch that this could be Robson’s year.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what actually surfaces – but then, that is the case every year, especially when all our best guesses are confounded…