An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.

It’s a long way to Inverary

‘The Sharkes Discuss.’ With Helen Marshall, Inverary Castle, May 27th 2017.

“But the more we talked the more I sensed that DeWitt’s greatest heartbreak had come from the place that had first changed her life: Oxford. After a decade as a student and lecturer with no end to her distinctions and a thesis completed on the concept of propriety in ancient criticism, she had hoped Oxford would give her the sort of freedom that had allowed historians like Ronald Syme to write an epic work like The Roman Revolution. But Oxford had changed: Thatcherization, credentialization, Americanization, i.e., the pursuit of narrow specialties in the name of job-seeking. She realized she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.”

This from a fantastic article by Christian Lorentzen in Vulture on the writer Helen DeWitt. The piece resonated on several levels, reminding me simultaneously of myself a quarter-century ago, thinking about Nabokov in the library at Corpus, the passage I quoted in my review of Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality for the shadow Clarke, the often embattled situation of women modernists and post-modernists in general.

Oxford didn’t break my heart – I was too preoccupied with other matters to let it get sufficiently into my head and under my skin. I do remember very clearly though a discussion I had with some American students in the Dome on Little Clarendon Street immediately after a lecture, in which I stated the theories of Bakhtin and Saussure were all very interesting, but they had nothing to do with how a text actually came into being.

“The text is all that matters,” I said, to shocked expressions. That the text is paramount is something I still believe, more or less, although I barely grasped what I was trying to articulate back then, the tensions such a view might excite.

Perhaps that’s one of the qualifications you most need to be a writer: to understand that a particular view might be controversial, but to write it down anyway, or at least try to. The better part of writing is instinct, gut feeling, abiding by the truth of what drew you to setting words on paper in the first place. Intellectual justification and brinkmanship, a more precise academic understanding of your position vis a vis your detractors (I almost wrote ‘distractors’ there, which seems very telling) – these things can come later, if they’re important to you. The text is the thing.

I saw a blog post the other day adjuring writers to ‘write responsibly’. I understand what that person meant and that they meant it well but seriously, writers, don’t. Write responsibly, I mean. That way mediocrity lies.

*

Passing through into the second phase of the shadow Clarke project has been a fascinating, exhilarating and often perplexing experience. The narrowing of our focus – just the six officially shortlisted texts now to discuss between us – has led us into some intense and hugely exciting discussions on criticism in general, its value and aims. No two Sharkes think exactly alike, but our mutual passion for the subject and our general agreement regarding its importance has tended to unite us far more strongly than any individual difference in emphasis has had the potential to divide. For myself, what I am coming away with most of all is an increased awareness of my own approach as but one point on a spectrum and a point that is by no means static at that. As always, the unflagging support and enthusiasm my fellow Sharkes continue to show for this project is a powerful source of inspiration and insight and I cannot even begin to express the gratitude I feel for their marvellous company on this occasionally precarious voyage of discovery.

*

The investment of time, not to mention energy both intellectual and emotional that has been necessary to keep the Sharke swimming has meant less time for this blog, for which I apologise, although plenty has been going on behind the scenes. I have recently – just two weeks ago in fact – completed work on what I hope will be the final draft of a new novel, a work I’m very excited about and will post more about here in due course. I also have a brand new novelette just up at Clarkesworld magazine. ‘Neptune’s Trident‘ is the first story I’ve written with a specific connection to the west coast of Argyll and I’m delighted to see it in print. This story began life in the weeks immediately following the US elections, and I think those scars are visible – in fact I think they’re what ‘Neptune’s Trident’ is mostly about.

We are continuing to relish and draw strength from our new surroundings. We love Rothesay, we love our island, we’re happy and proud to make our home and our life in Scotland. The skies are incredible here – like nowhere I’ve been. For most of the past month I’ve had to drop everything I’m doing at the requisite time just to watch the sunset. Eleven-thirty pm and there is still a fugitive, slate-blue light in the sky. I gaze out over the firth and I worry about the upcoming election and I plan my next book, which will be all about here. This is what I’m doing right now.

Free Willy!

Delighted to announce that my weird cosmic London story, Maggots, has been nominated in the novella category of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards. This is hugely exciting for me, firstly because I’m very fond of this story (published as part of the Solaris haunted house anthology Five Stories High) and secondly because, as always, the Shirley Jackson shortlists form a veritable showcase of what is new, interesting and excellent in dark and weird fiction. I am especially pleased to see stories by Irenosen Okojie and Camilla Grudova nominated, and the novel shortlist – including works by Emma Cline, Eleanor Wasserberg and Iain Reid – is particularly strong and imaginative this year. Well done, judges!

You can see the full line-up of nominees here – do yourself a favour and order something from it this weekend.

Dreams Before the Start of Time

In all the political excitement and confusion of the past ten hours, no one should forget that today also sees the publication of Anne Charnock’s beautifully crafted third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time. A sequel-of-sorts to her second, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Dreams has us revisit one of the main characters from that novel, and brings us a whole host of new characters to populate, clarify and meditate upon the technological, sociological and environmental changes that have taken place in her world since last we saw her.

Toni was a teenage girl in Sleeping Embers. Now an old lady, her store of memories and knowledge of possibilities beyond the parameters of the existence we know makes her – and the reality she inhabits – both utterly compelling as a character and a notable and important exemplar of everything science fiction can be capable of when it is as good as this.

I greatly admire this book. I love the music it makes when listened to in consort with its equally accomplished predecessor. Most of all, I’m delighted and inspired by Anne Charnock’s writing talent, her contemplative, forensic, insatiably curious approach to speculative fiction. The three novels she has produced to date constitute a significant literary achievement in their own right, as well as being the springboard from which – I feel sure of it – Charnock will leap towards still more confident advances in the novels to come.

What with all the Sharke-ing, I’ve not yet had time to write the review this novel deserves, but in a way that’s a good thing as your reading energies would be far better spent in getting stuck into the book itself. But for any of you who do enjoy a more detailed introduction, look no further than From Couch to Moon, where you’ll see that my fellow Sharke, Megan AM, clearly enjoyed Dreams Before the Start of Time as much as I did.

One for next year’s shortlist, that’s for sure…

 

Well, that was weird…

It is with some pride and considerably greater astonishment that I can now confirm that my story ‘The Art of Space Travel‘ has been nominated for a Hugo. (Nope, still doesn’t sound real.) This is something I never expected to happen for a work of mine in a million years, so seriously, a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who voted for the story, and thereby contributed to giving me one of my most surreal email inbox moments to date.

‘The Art of Space Travel’ was inspired, believe it or not, by one of the Heathrow Eastercons. Over the course of the weekend and walking to and fro between the con hotel and the pub and restaurant in the nearby village of Sipson, it struck me again and again how peculiar it was, this juxtaposition of a centuries-old community with the artificial and constantly fluctuating landscape of the airport, its buildings and the dividing perimeter road. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to write a story set amidst the contradictions and unique challenges of that landscape, and, a year or so later, ‘The Art of Space Travel’ was the result. With the destruction of Sipson to make way for a third airport runway a real possibility, the story feels still more urgent and closer to home.

Emily, Benny and Moolie remain favourite characters of mine, and the knowledge that others have felt touched by them too – enough to nominate their story for a Hugo Award – is the most massive compliment.

Thanks also of course to Ellen Datlow for buying and editing the story, to tor.com for publishing it, and to Linda Yan for her gorgeous cover art.

You can check out the full list of Hugo nominees at tor.com here.

2084

Trying to come up with something good to say about today, I note with some excitement the launch of Unsung Stories’s new Kickstarter project, set up with the aim of helping the launch of their first ever anthology. 2084 is a celebration – if that’s the right word – of George Orwell’s great novel 1984, in which we see eleven science fiction writers grappling with his themes and coming up with new interpretations and meditations on what Orwell was writing about back in 1948.

As George Sandison suggests in his introduction to the Kickstarter, far from being last-century, the themes of 1984 have never felt more urgent, more relevant, and the act of writing science fiction has itself never felt more political. With new stories by Aliya Whiteley, Anne Charnock, Christopher Priest and Dave Hutchinson to name just four, 2084 looks like being a landmark anthology and I’d urge everyone to support it. (The artwork is amazing, too.)

And while we’re on the subject of Kickstarters, I backed Influx Press’s latest earlier in the week. I’m choosing Eley Williams’s collection Attrib as my reward – from the samples I’ve read it seems an extraordinary book – but more than that I want to support what they do, because in the current climate especially, publishers that support writing that is as political as it is personal are more important than ever.

On an allied subject, I was reading Iain Sinclair’s essay ‘The Last London‘ in the London Review of Books yesterday. Discursive and clearly targeted at the same time, Sinclair’s ruminations about what is happening not just to London but to our corner of the world struck more than a few chords.

There are so many good people, fighting for good things. It’s good, especially today, to try and remember that.

The Sharkes are biting

I’m now at the half way stage with my personal shortlist for the shadow Clarke – three reviews down, three to go. I went into the process expecting it to be fascinating and I’ve not been disappointed. It’s not just my own selections, you see – at least half the pleasure to be had from this project comes from learning what my fellow Sharkes are thinking about theirs. Already there are several books I’m thinking I should definitely read before trying to come to any overall conclusions about what this year’s submissions might have to say about the state of science fiction. And that’s before we even start trying to second-guess what the official Clarke Award shortlist might contain.

I’m not normally in the habit of reading nothing but science fiction, and doing so now feels both exhilarating and strange. Exhilarating, because immersing oneself in a particular subject matter – deeply enough to acquire new knowledge – will always feel exhilarating. Strange because it forces one to focus upon just how artificial the idea of SF as a separate branch of literature actually is. Curiously, the act of concentrating solely upon science fiction has made me feel more or less indifferent to ‘SF’ as such. What it has done has forced me up against the writing, more than ever. Not: is this a good science fiction novel or is this science fiction even but is this novel actually any good?

Maybe not the result I was expecting but I’m going with it.

In my own reading of my personal shortlist, I’ve been deliberately alternating between genre and non-genre imprints, which again has been interesting, not least because the divide – certainly as regards the novels I’ve chosen – hasn’t been nearly as stark as I might have expected. I’m taking this as further evidence of the way the boundaries between genre SF and literary SF are increasingly becoming fuzzy to non-existent.

Have I found my personal winner yet? I don’t think so, and already I’m beginning to wonder if I might end up ‘no award’-ing my own list and poking around in the leftovers of someone else’s. If I have time, that is. There’s still a pile of reading and reviewing to get through before the official shortlist is announced on May 6th. One thing I do know: as our overall stock of reviews mounts up and more books are covered, the discussion can only become more complex and more surprising.

You can keep up with all our reading and reviewing at the ARU SFF Centre website. And don’t forget to enter the official Clarke Award ‘guess the shortlist’ competition here!

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