Whoops (I Did it Again)

I spent part of this bank holiday weekend at London’s Frightfest. I know I swore I’d not go back, but the company of friends, the wonderful atmosphere of the Fest itself, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – I’d see something astounding tempted me to give the thing another go. I had a great time just being in town, and loved the experience of just being at FF as I always do. The films, though. I know it’s hardly fair of me to comment as time and expense (and, this year, a train strike) meant I only got to see a small percentage of the complete line-up, but oh dear. Aside from a highly commendable and hugely entertaining Mad Max homage called Turbo Kid (chopper bikes and old comics instead of war machines – an appealing aesthetic, I thought, as well as a lively, funny, knowing script that played out as if the writer actually gave a damn) none of the films I saw possessed so much as a scrap of originality or merit. Worse, much of what was on offer seemed to have a retrograde vibe in terms of its subject matter – and not in a good way.

Every so often we get bursts of discussion about conservatism within the horror genre: namely, whether horror is an inherently conservative form of storytelling – over-dependent on tired tropes, antediluvian social attitudes and plot-it-by-numbers stereotypes. Not enough discussion, evidently. Why is it that whenever I start to feel optimistic about a new era of horror cinema, along comes a film like Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click and pulls that particular rug right out from under my feet. And again, not in a good way. It’s a shame Bakhia (who was present for the screening and – of course! – seemed like a really nice guy) wasn’t doing a Q&A at the showing I went to because I did actually have a question I’d have been genuinely fascinated to hear the answer to:

“Mr Bakhia, don’t you think films in which the women characters exist solely to be humiliated, raped and finally killed – in which the women characters’ sole purpose within the plot is to provide fuel for an argument/feud/vendetta between characters of the male gender and where in fact there is no plot driver except that an adult woman happened to have consensual sex with another adult – don’t you think films like that are just a tiny bit eighties???”

I think what Bakhia might (and I say that very tentatively because he shot so wide of the target) have been going for was a kind of Euro/US spin on Park Chan-wook’s mighty Vengeance trilogy. Personally, I would count such a misguided homage as an insult to Park. Landmine Goes Click is pointless, tasteless, boring and one of the very worst films I’ve seen recently. Right from the start, the omens weren’t good. In the few words he did address to the audience prior to the screening, Bakhia suggested that the story idea had originally arisen out of a brainstorming session. What’s the betting that the participants in said session were all lads..?

More worrying still, the movie currently has a rating of 7.6 on iMDb.

What actually went through the writer/director’s head? What emotions did he want to arouse? Because aside from the movie’s inherent derivativeness, nothing about the film is remotely shocking. Does Bakhia think horror films are just for men? Does he think men don’t care about story, so long as they get to see one angry dude call his fiancee a whore and set her up to be raped?

I’m asking, because I’m genuinely curious.

I was mulling all this over (during the second, excruciatingly tedious half of yet another film in which demons/witches seemed rapaciously intent on robbing a teenage girl of her unborn baby) and asking myself for the umpteenth time: is it them, or me? Is it even possible to make a good, commercially viable horror film? Not namby-pamby arthouse horror (my favourite kind – sigh) but the full-on, genuine article with its roots stuck firmly in the genre and that anyone who regularly watches horror would be OK with naming as such?

If so, what is it about these films that lift them clear of the dross heap, and why aren’t there more of them?

It’s interesting to think about (more fun than watching Hellions, anyway, and to think the same guy directed Pontypool – what the actual fuck??) and in a pre-emptive strike I’m going to answer my own questions:

1) Yes, it’s possible.

2) A decent script.

3) Because way too many writers/directors think a promising idea is the same as an actual story.

I’m now going to illustrate my answers with some examples. It so happens that shortly before I went to FrightFest, I happened to see an article over at Movies Films and Flicks in which Mark Hofmeyer set out to canvas opinion on the top ten horror films of the 21st century – so far. He culled figures and ratings from many sources – you can see the full breakdown here and the whole article makes fascinating reading. Whilst I may not agree with all the placings (although Mark’s personal five aren’t a bad line-up, actually) I found it a fun game to play. I scribbled down my own list, which soon ballooned to twenty and I’m still fiddling around with it. Here (and I stress in no particular order) is where I am with it so far:

Kill List (Ben Wheatley). A returning soldier faces problems reintegrating himself with civilain society. A charismatic friend (read ‘bit of a dick’) offers to cut him in on a high-paying, er, contract he’s landed. After a long, slow build-up that has more in common with the cinema of Mike Leigh than anything you might expect to find in a generic horror film, things suddenly get very nasty very fast. This film is hard to watch but it is a stand-out.

Wake Wood (David Keating). Remembering the quiet and chilling elegance of this Wicker-Man-style movie (which received far less attention than it warranted) makes it all the more painful to learn that its director went on to make the derivative and valueless coven ‘chiller’ Cherry Tree as premiered at FrightFest this weekend.

Thirst (Park Chan-wook). A reimagining of Zola’s novel Therese Raquin – with added vampires! I was totally swept away by this when I saw it – but then it is Park Chan-wook, so you can’t go wrong really. Stunning and beautiful.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Park’s first English-language movie mixes familiar Hollywood horror tropes with Korean revenge drama and some of the most luscious cinematography ever to grace a screen. I’d watch this again in a heartbeat and you should, too.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). The best thing about this one is that it has the courage of its convictions. Not a lot happens – but the tension generated is mighty AND it stands up to repeated viewings. I thought this was going to be shit when I went to see it – the death throes of the Blair Witch movement – but I was more than happy to be wrong. The sequels get more and more stupid (as sequels tend to do) but whilst they’re moderately entertaining, the original first movie is actually worthy of a place in the canon.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook). Park’s use of music and colour (especially the colour red) in this film is astounding. Whilst a lot of people cite Oldboy as the jewel in the Vengeance crown, I would have to cite Lady Vengeance, the third instalment in the trilogy, as my personal favourite.

The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington). I’ve watched this about four times and I still love it. A quiet, slow, highly unusual ghost story about recovering from grief and predicting the future. Laura Linney, especially, shines. The final fifteen minutes provides a particularly glorious sequence, shot almost entirely without dialogue, which feels genuinely iconic.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm). Far and away the best of the spate of exorcism films that arrived seemingly out of nowhere between 2009-2012. The first half hour plays out like a real-life documentary about a boy-preacher growing up to become a professional exorcist. He’s mostly lost his faith but he still wants to help people. He’s called to a remote farm, where a young girl has been behaving strangely. The ending of this film is rather predictable, sadly, but there’s some great stuff along the way and several moments of genuine terror (all too rare in horror films these days).

Wolf Creek (Greg McLean). Four friends camping in the outback. Their van breaks down. Someone comes to ‘help’. Yeah, you know how it’s going to play out, but the first hour (in which nothing much happens apart from us getting to know the protagonists) sets this movie apart from its Texas-Chainsaw-wannabe cousins. It’s horrible. I don’t think I’d watch this again but it should be in the canon.

The Descent (Neil Marshall). Another one I’ve watched a lot. The first hour, in which backstory is established and relationships are set up, is brilliant. The moment when the women realise that no one knows where they are – a genuine frisson of terror. Amazing performances and some really good stuff in general. The third quarter – a lot of dashing through tunnels to escape monsters, basically – is too generic for my liking (less is more, people) but I still love this film. The ending is a hideous masterstroke. (A masterstroke that The Descent 2 seeks to obliterate, incidentally, which only proves the point that sequels – aside from the Alien tetralogy – only serve to weaken the original concept and are generally a bad idea.)

Byzantium (Neil Jordan). A common-or-garden vampire movie raised above the common by a gloriously measured, poetic script by Moira Buffini based on her own stage play. Lovely performances, plus it’s set in Hastings, which made it a real treat for Chris and me particularly. A perfect small film, and about a hundred times better than the disappointingly-scripted and laughably derivative Only Lovers Left Alive, which ended up hogging the bulk of the vampire-love the following year.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s no good way to describe this other than ‘a bloodbath’, with Ryan Gosling playing an angsty gangster and Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Bathory. (Note: best screen death evah.) The body count is pretty much total but this movie has a stunning aesthetic and is just so in-yer-face you come away reeling. I like Winding Refn a lot – like an extrovert Von Trier, he just doesn’t give a stuff who he offends – but I do understand why some people don’t.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro). Before he was famous. I like this riff on the vampire movie even better than I like The Devil’s Backbone. Stunning sense of place, gorgeous palette, great characterisation. I honestly have no idea why this isn’t better known.

Audition (Miike Takashi). It’s the needle scene that gets people talking and seeing as it’s one of the most uncomfortable sequences in horror cinema it’s not hard to see why. There is so much more to Audition, though. The way Miike plays tricks with time and chronology, for one. The nightmarish sadness of the story, for another. Mysterious and – dare I say it – beautiful, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in horror cinema. I’ve watched it three times now and it gets better each time. Be warned: it is genuinely scary.

The Box (Richard Kelly). Based on Richard Matheson’s ‘deal with the devil’ story ‘Button, Button’, no one seemed to like this when it came out. It gets a bit silly towards the end, but I actually think this movie is an overlooked gem. Weird, and weirdly compelling. One to see twice.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Based on true events. I found parts of this almost impossible to watch, but the characterisation, sense of place and raw, brittle style of the cinematography make it a powerful social indictment as well as a horrifyingly gripping examination of events in a small Australian community. Be careful with this one – it really is strong meat – but it’s an amazing piece of film making and should be recognised as such.

The Monk (Dominik Moll). An unusual, beautiful and completely engrossing cinematic experience. This film isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, and is a perfect demonstration of how familiar tropes can be made to seem original and to live again. Highly recommended.

Requiem (Hans Christian Schmid). The ‘real’ exorcist. You won’t get the crucifix masturbation or spider walk scenes with this one. But what you will get is the story of a devout and highly gifted young woman starting college, trying to make the adjustment from living in a small provincial community and assailed by forces – both emotional and spiritual – that seem beyond her control. This film is brilliant: quiet yet disturbing and highly affecting. Again, inspired by true events and a deeply personal examination of the tensions between the real and the imagined. I love this film.

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez). If you liked Paranormal Activity you’ll probably enjoy this, too. The film aroused a deal of curiosity and comment for being shot in a single take. But there’s more here than technical panache. There’s a fascinating mystery, a pile of raw tension and a genuine sense of unease about the whole thing. Does a great trick with timelines, too. Should be part of the canon.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley). Oh, this movie. Wheatley’s follow-up to Kill List, and I’m not even sure it can properly be called horror, although it is about a distinctly oddball couple who go on a killing spree whilst visiting a pencil museum and other esoteric visitor attractions in the north of England. I don’t care what you call it — it is brilliant, chilling and also very, very funny. Wonderful, wonderful script.

I’m still quibbling with myself over the inclusion of Wolf Creek, because it breaks a lot of my own rules for decent horror (in that anything belonging to the subgenre known popularly as torture porn is a lazy excuse for a horror movie and should earn instant disqualification from discussion on grounds of being complete crap). But the set-up was so good – the extended, dawdling exposition of the characters’ relationships to one another, the sense of place, the documentary feel that I always enjoy – and the movie had such a strong impact on me at the time of seeing that I’m letting it stay on there for now. Miike Takashi’s Audition of course is a cheat inclusion – it first aired in 1999 – but it is such a strong film and so close to being 21st century that it has to be on there, I think. (The Blair Witch Project, another notable 1999 entry, could well qualify on similar grounds.) You could easily argue that Snowtown isn’t a horror film at all, but true crime. However, as one of the most brilliant, authentic and genuinely horrific films I’ve ever seen, I felt compelled to put it forward. Both Requiem and Only God Forgives could be subject to similar quibbles but who cares – both make generous use of horror themes, and I think they’re both, in their very different ways, astounding pieces of cinema.

The others all easily qualify as straight-up horror, though. Looking at them as a group, I can see they fall into several distinct categories: social (Kill List, Sightseers, The Box, The Last Exorcism), mythic (Thirst, Cronos, Byzantium, Wake Wood, The Monk), hauntings (The Mothman Prophecies, The Silent House, Paranormal Activity) and secret past (Stoker, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Descent). Both supernatural and non-supernatural horror are represented, as are contemporary and historical settings. A good coverage of themes and approaches, then. But the one attribute shared by all is an emphasis on the revelation of plot through character.

I’m not going to try and argue that all horror has to be ‘quiet horror’ or that horror cinema will always leave more of an impact when the violence is kept off the screen. What I would argue though is that in order for horror films to be effective, they must offer us a story to become engrossed in. The shattering, look-away-now violence in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (one of FrightFest’s more noteworthy premieres) would be meaningless and therefore ineffectual without our knowledge of the characters, our nervous and wary investment in their story. We wouldn’t care half so much about what happens to Sarah at the end of The Descent if we hadn’t spent half the movie’s run-time getting to know her, following her backstory and learning about the intricate and uneasy web of relationships between her group of friends. Movies like Wake Wood, Cronos, Byzantium and The Monk are all based upon what you might call horror staples, but what raises them above hundreds of run-of-the-mill films that utilize the same tropes is the thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive way they are written.

More even than the stunning visuals, what distinguishes truly innovative and original horror movies like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Mothman Prophecies – making them new classics of the genre – are their intricate scripts.

This goes for all horror writing of course, not just films. Stephen King has always understood this in a way that James Herbert never did. In King, character (as revealed through backstory, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, engaged writing throughout) is always bigger than whatever ‘horror’ is coming down the line. King’s novels are about people, and how they deal with adversity, failure, change and the intervention of evil or trauma in their lives. Herbert’s novels, on the other hand, are mainly interested in the coming splatpocalypse. The characters in The Rats or The Fog – like the backpackers in the Hostel movies or Jigsaw’s victims in the Saw franchise – are being set up from page one to die in any one of a number of repulsive and excruciating ways, which is their main and only purpose in what passes for the story. Their backstories are brief and broadly generic. After all, why waste time explaining a character’s lifelong immersion in the works of Kierkegaard when they’re going to have their head removed with a buzz saw in just a moment?

I’m not sure what description to apply to stuff like this, but I would argue passionately that it isn’t horror. The best horror fiction (in whatever form) reveals to us something about the world, something about ourselves. We read Lovecraft because of his writerly conviction that the world we see around us is not the world that truly is. We watch American Horror Story (although this series also is far from perfect – more on that another day perhaps) because we are fascinated by the hidden connections between events and between characters, because we want to discover how the storylines are interwoven and what these intricate relationships will later reveal. We read Stephen King because we can imagine ourselves so easily into his milieu. We know his people and the small towns they live in. We probably went to school with some of them. We want to know what happens to them next.

A horror story narrative should be a whole thing, a tightly woven tapestry in which people and events are intricately interrelated. A parade of gruesome-death set pieces is not a narrative, it is a series of not very interesting events. Viewers who haven’t seen too many horror films might find themselves on the wrong end of a few jump-scares, to be sure, but keep feeding them this schlock and even the hitherto uninitiated will soon pick up the rules. Then they’ll be bored, buzz saw or no buzz saw. They will end up feeling that horror isn’t for them.

In giving Chris a (mercifully) brief resume of the films I’d seen at FrightFest, I expressed regret that (because of the train strike) I hadn’t been able to see the one movie I had been excited about – Bernard Rose’s new adaptation of Frankenstein. Rose has a good track record with horror films, most famously with Candyman (very nearly a very good film, and worth experiencing just for Philip Glass’s amazing score) and with his earlier, less well known movie Paperhouse, an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel for younger readers, Marianne Dreams. Marianne Dreams was a touchstone work for me from an early age, and telling Chris about the movie adaptation brought it all back to me: the immortal strangeness of a world in which the greatest horror might be expressed in an image of a house with no internal staircase, or a ring of sentient stones marking a boundary and blocking your exit. Thinking about this story – and Marjorie-Ann Watts’s haunting illustrations – still has the power to transport me back to a time when I would avoid reading sections of the novel too close to bedtime, because the anxiety they aroused in me was so intense.

(And not a buzz saw in sight.)

Those of us who love horror fiction love its archetypes: the haunted house, the ghost from the past, the road through the forest, the person you have been told you should never speak to. These archetypes – what are commonly called tropes but that are actually more than that, more powerful, more evocative, more like myths – are important, because they form a wellspring of story. We each have our favourites – those that resonate most with us – and the reason a favourite is a favourite will always be different.

And this is the key, really. The reason so many commercial horror movies fail at being horror is that they do not take the tropes as wellsprings – as inspiration – but dollop them on to our screens as the finished article. Horror movies written by committee – by brainstorming – will almost always be pallid reiterations of cliche, because a simple exposition of archetypes is not the same thing as an affecting story. Such archetypes can only be brought fully to life by personal response. Why am I drawn to this subject matter? What is my individual response to it? What is it that made me want to tell this story in the first place?

Why does it matter to me as a writer, in other words. If I cannot answer that question, the chances are the material I produce won’t be much cop.

ENDNOTE 1: If I do decide to throw Wolf Creek off my list, I’ll be replacing it with Philip Ridley’s Heartless. Here is a fine example of a film that takes a classic archetype – the Faustian bargain – and brings it superbly to new life through personal interpretation. Hardly surprising, from the writer/director who brought us the minor masterpiece The Passion of Darkly Noon and whose chief occupation is as a playwright. We should also note that Heartless was originally premiered at FrightFest, so those guys do get it right at least part of the time.

ENDNOTE 2: I feel it would be wrong to end this piece without at least acknowledging the catastrophic imbalance (in favour of male writers and directors) that still exists within horror cinema. The fact that this situation is perpetuated throughout cinema does not make it any better. I want to write more about this, and about what it means for the genre, but it is a huge subject, and needs more research. I’m therefore leaving it for another day. But it’s something we should all be thinking about in the meantime.

Helsinki 2017

Well, it’s now official: the 2017 Worldcon will be held in Helsinki. This is a cause for massive celebration, not least for the Helsinki bid team, who have been tireless in promoting their bid, and thoroughly deserve this excellent result. It could also be argued that the Helsinki win is the most positive thing to have arisen – be it directly or indirectly – from this year’s Puppy debacle. The site selection voting process is quite complicated – something that may have deterred voters in the past. If events this year spurred people on to be that little bit more focussed, that little bit more determined to see things play out differently in the future, then I for one count that as a net gain.

The statistics speak for themselves, in any case – the number of ballots cast for site selection came close to being an all-time record. We’re very much planning on being in Helsinki for the 2017 Worldcon and from the looks of things it’s going to be a great one. Truly an event to look forward to and we can’t wait.

As for this year’s Hugo Awards, whilst I’m happy to join the host of well-wishers stepping forward to congratulate Noah Ward, who swept the Hugos in five separate categories and left the opposition reeling  (3,000 votes to 500 is quite a rout, after all – I mean, it’s as bad as what happened to the Lib Dems!) I would also want to remember and commiserate with those fine writers and editors who were denied their shortlist placings and possible Hugo wins because of the slate voting tactics employed by the Puppy factions. The official voting stats have now been released, and people have been putting together alternative ballots, showing what the shortlists might have looked like in the absence of Puppy pooping.

It’s painful to contemplate. For those who lost out, of course, but also for the rest of us. Perhaps the best thing we can take away from this is a RESOLUTION TO NOMINATE in the 2016 Hugos. If all the people who voted in this year’s Hugos take the time and trouble to nominate for next year’s, it won’t really matter much if Sad Puppies 4 kicks off or not, because their chances would be stuffed anyway. Resolutions to amend the voting procedure in a manner that would hopefully prevent wholesale slate nominations in the future are already in process, and although we’ll have to wait a number of months to see whether these resolutions are ratified, the determination of the Worldcon as a whole to effect change can be seen as a positive development in itself.

In the meantime, I’d like to point readers towards this interview by Ken Liu (translator of Liu Cixin‘s Hugo-winning novel The Three Body Problem, and whose own novella The Regular would and should have been on the shortlist in a slate-free world), these two short stories by Aliette de Bodard and Amal El-Mohtar (likewise) and in particular Kai Ashante Wilson‘s novelette The Devil in America, which I count as one of the finest (and most important) pieces of SFF short fiction from the whole of last year. That it lost out on a shortlist place, and thus wider recognition, is a great loss for everyone.

And not forgetting Abigail Nussbaum, Natalie Luhrs, Mark Oshiro and Liz Bourke in the Best Fanwriter category. If not for the Puppies, this category would have looked and felt very different, and would have offered us, you know, some actual fan writing to celebrate…

Dead Letters

A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:

“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow… 

Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”

I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.

At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.

Nina Dead letter 96

 

And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.

I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.

I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.

This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.

I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…

The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:

 

The Green Letter                          Steven Hall

Over to You                                   Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam                                Joanne Harris

Ausland                                         Alison Moore

Wonders to Come                       Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer                             Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game                        Ramsey Campbell

Is-and                                            Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse                         Andrew Lane

Gone Away                                  Muriel Gray

Astray                                           Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives               Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel                      Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N                                      Nicholas Royle

Change Management              Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants                              Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville 

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere           Kirsten Kaschock

 

Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Titan(ic) news!

Well, this is all very exciting.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve recently signed a 2-book deal with Titan Books. Titan have acquired rights to my novel The Race, which they will be publishing in a new and expanded edition in both the UK and the US next summer. They will also be publishing my second novel, The Rift, in 2017.

Cath Trechman, Titan’s Senior Fiction Editor, has been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive, and I’m delighted to be working with her. She and her team are dedicated to building Titan’s fiction list by bringing in fresh and innovative work across the SFFH genres and I’m proud to be a part of that.

When Cath suggested that we should make the Titan edition of The Race truly new by including some extra material, I was only too happy to agree. The new edition of The Race will include a brand new novella-length appendix, ‘Brock Island’, which I’ve just finished writing. ‘Brock Island’ is not supposed to be read as a new ending, but it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their world, so anyone wanting ‘more’ will not be disappointed! Creating this extra material was a real challenge -‘Brock Island’ not only had to work as a story in its own right, it also had to complement the metafictional aspects of the main text – but it was also hugely rewarding to re-enter the book’s atmosphere and find new things there.

As for The Rift, I’ll have plenty more to say in due course. For now, I can tell you that it’s a science fiction mystery about a woman named Julie who believes she’s been abducted by aliens. The first draft is written – in fact I’ve begun work on the second draft just this afternoon. I don’t mind admitting that this is absolutely the most addictive story I have worked on to date and it’s wonderful to know that the book has found such a good home.

I’ll be telling you more about The Rift, and about the new edition of The Race here before too long. In the meantime I just want to say thank you to Cath and to Natalie and to the whole Titan team for bringing me on board and making me feel so welcome.

You can read Titan’s official announcement at booktrade.info here.

Man Booker Longlist 2015

Awards again, and after days of heady anticipation at what might be on there, I found myself scanning this year’s Booker Prize longlist as it was revealed yesterday with something approaching gloom. The more I looked the more disappointed I felt, and yet I found it difficult to articulate clearly why this might be. There was no book (well, perhaps one) I could point to that I felt shouldn’t be on the list. The line-up was, as some commentators have pointed out, one of the most encouraging in terms of diversity and gender parity that we have so far seen from the Booker. So why did the longlist leave me underwhelmed?

I could of course point to the list’s very low speculative fiction quotient as a source of dissatisfaction. There is only one novel of SFF interest in evidence, and that novel, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, is one of the most disappointing I’ve read all year. Smaill is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer but as a novel The Chimes is as weak as water, a book that is completely overshadowed by its derivative second half. What with the exceptional novels of literary SF that could have been chosen instead – Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me, Sara Taylor’s The Shore to name but three – I couldn’t help asking myself which of the judges had insisted on pushing The Chimes. One who loved the use of musical terminology and who by some fluke happened never to have read a single dystopia or YA novel? Some readers will know what it costs me to say this, but I would rather have seen Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things on the Booker longlist than The Chimes. I couldn’t stand the Faber but I couldn’t mistake its ambition either. The Chimes is just bland.

[EDIT: someone has very kindly pointed me towards this fascinating review at Locus, in which Paul di Filippo (very convincingly I might add) compares Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with PKD and particularly with Ballard, which reminds me that I really should have mentioned Tom McCarthy in this discussion. Booker junkies will well remember 2010, when McCarthy’s C made the shortlist and was hailed as a great modernist gamechanger for doing so. I remember C with great affection – the prose is superb, refined and clear and pure as Caithness crystal – and looking back on that 2010 shortlist now it seems the best book on there by a marathon’s distance and obviously should have won. Which brings me to the point about Tom McCarthy and the Booker, and the reason I subconsciously sidelined him in my thinking: Satin Island is clearly the sacrificial lamb on this longlist, the single curt nod to modernism the judges felt compelled to deliver or else fall foul of the usual criticisms about the Booker being hidebound and conservative. Satin Island stands proud from the overall tone and tenor of the shortlist as a whole like a pulled stitch in an elaborate tapestry. McCarthy will not be allowed to win any more than he was in 2010. I doubt he will even be allowed to progress to the shortlist this time. Still, the prompting towards di Philippo’s review has reminded me that I need to read Satin Island – in fact I’ve just ordered it – and here’s hoping I’ve been totally wrong and unfair in prejudging the judges!]

It would be wrong to put my disappointment down to SF-related disgruntlement alone though, especially given that the Booker could hardly be described as a prize that centres its attention on speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the main reason I felt disappointed was simply because the longlist was not the longlist I would have chosen. It was the same with the Clarke earlier this year. Plenty of people loved that list. I found it stolidly centrist, a representation not of the hardscrabble edgelands of the genre but of its commercial heartland. The progressive edge of that heartland, to be sure, but still nothing you could point to (except, ironically, the Faber!) as actively adventurous. I suppose my feelings about this particular Booker longlist are somewhat similar, compounded by the fact that the Booker submissions process is now so tortuous and preferential that we cannot even be sure which novels were allowed to be in contention in the first place. I know that Clarke Award chairman Tom Hunter has sometimes agonized over publishing the Clarke Award submissions list: does anyone really gain anything from seeing this list, or does it just open another big can of worms? I assure you, Tom, the transparency surrounding the Clarke’s award process is one of its strongest attributes and should not be compromised.

My disappointment with the Booker longlist list is certainly no more valid than anyone else’s excitement. It does, however, serve as a reminder that all juried prize selections are a compromise at some level, the sum of a small number of personal proclivities and a healthy dose of mutual horse-trading. It has often occurred to me that most prize selections are probably more instructive in retrospect, offering an overview of a literary scene whose trends and peculiarities become properly visible only with distance. Within the context of its given year, the Booker longlist is always going to look pretty random.

Which is all the more reason to get as many random snapshots as we possibly can. Rather than be depressed by a prize selection, how much more interesting and productive to use it is a starting point for exploration and discussion. As ordinary readers we don’t have the resources to award writers the lucrative prize monies that the Booker, for example, is able to offer. What we can do though is share our passion for the books and writers that excite us. Which is why I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and put up my own personal preferred Booker longlist just for the fun of it, as selected from those of the eligible novels I’ve read, those I have sampled and others that I’ve heard about and can’t wait to get stuck into.

1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One from the official longlist, one I think will almost certainly make the shortlist, and one I definitely intend to read before the winner is announced. ‘I don’t think it was a book that anyone loved’, said Yanagihara in a recent interview of her first novel, The People in the Trees. Well, she’s wrong in at least one instance, because I did love that novel. I loved the form it took – fictional (auto)biographies are a favourite of mine, especially when combined with fictitious footnotes by a fictitious editor, and recounted by an unreliable narrator as superbly drawn as Yanagihara’s odious Norton Perina. For me The People in the Trees remains firmly on my favourites list for 2014. Yanagihara’s follow-up, A Little Life has had some of the most rapturous reader reviews I’ve seen in 2015 and with the excellence of Yanagihara’s writing in mind I can’t say I’m surprised. The premise doesn’t grab me nearly as much, I have to say – from where I’m sitting now, the novel seems to have a little too much of The Goldfinch about it for my liking, a baggy-monster-y, Franzen-y, conventional-narrative-y kind of a novel, the kind that all too often has me thinking:  this is great to read but what’s the point?? My curiosity has the better of me, though, and I’m going to have to read it just so I can make up my own mind. We’ve already pre-ordered it, so watch this space.

2) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Another from the official longlist, and a book that grabbed my attention from the moment I first started reading about it, when was it, around March time? This takes me back to 2013, when the two books from the Booker longlist I felt most determined to read also happened to be the two longest: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Richard House’s (utterly superb and still under-appreciated) The Kills. I emerged enriched by the experience, though, and I’m hoping and expecting I will do so again this year.

3) The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. As a reader, you can never predict with absolute certainly what books you’re going to love the most, and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is the proof of that for me. As I become more and more enmeshed in my own weird little corner of literature, the more difficult I find it (much to my regret) to become ensnared by what might be described as a ‘straightforward’ linear narrative. Which makes it all the more magical when it does happen, and I can honestly say that I haven’t loved a book as much as I loved The Wolf Border in the way I loved The Wolf Border in quite some time. I identified strongly with the protagonist, I cared passionately about the outcome, I found the sense of place exquisite and hugely important, with Hall’s writing flawless to the point of invisibility. Hall missed out on a Baileys listing and her non-appearance on the Booker longlist is incomprehensible to me. Please read this book.

4) Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. I have a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons, which I don’t want to pre-empt too much by saying: go out and buy this stunning debut novel right now!

5) Rawblood by Catriona Ward. So excited for this, as the grammatically mangled but colloquially compelling saying goes. It’s set on Dartmoor, it has intertwined narratives, it has a haunted house vibe. The opening pages are wonderful and I can’t wait to read it.

6) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Another book that caught my attention earlier in the year. Another one from the official longlist, too, so maybe that official longlist wasn’t so bad after all…

7) Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett. I bought this on the strength of John Self’s review and the Kindle preview. I adored what I read and this may very well be next up on my TBR.

8) The Making of Zombie Wars by Alexandar Hemon. I love and admire everything Hemon writes, and his new novel features ideas for imaginary zombie movies. How could I not want this right now? Pre-ordered.

9) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m choosing Atwood for my ‘big hitter/previous shortlistee’ spot, because she’s a personal hero of mine, because this novel is full-blown SF (seriously, when are people going to stop saying that Atwood is a dabbler? Most of her output for over a decade has been science fiction) and because the word on the street is that it’s her best novel in years. Seriously excited for this.

10) The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips. An intertwining of narratives featuring Emily Bronte, the character of Heathcliff and a woman in the twentieth century struggling with issues of sanity, family and identity. I read reviews of this and loved the premise immediately. The prose is mouthwateringly good. TBR asap.

11) Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. A woman on death row in Harare writes an account of what brought her there. Petina Gappah is one hell of a writer, as evidenced by her first book, the story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This is her first novel and I can’t wait.

12) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. This novel fills my ‘devil’s advocate’ slot (or the Wil[Sel]f Slot as we call it in this house – perhaps we should start calling it the Tom slot instead…) Cohen’s novel has divided opinion pretty much equally between those who say it’s the funniest, cleverest book of the year and those who say that everyone in it is a dick and that the author must be a dick to have written it, and a pretentious dick, too. Certainly everyone in the book seems to be an absolute arsehole, but since when has that put me off reading anything? I love metafiction, and I can’t help feeling intrigued and attracted by what Cohen is doing here. In spite of myself, I want to read it. Only time will tell if I come to regret that desire.

13) The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan. Coming in on the indie ticket we have a novel from Galley Beggar, who brought us Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013. Galley Beggar have published some remarkable books already, and I have heard such wonderful things about Trevelyan’s debut. It comes with a fantastic speculative conceit, too.

So that’s the fantasy longlist out of my system. And my on-the-spot predictions for the actual Booker shortlist? Based purely on personal hunches, I’m going with:

A Little Life

Lila

The Year of the Runaways

The Fishermen

The Illuminations

The Green Road

We’ll find out what the judges thought on September 15th.

The Race – special summer offer!

NewCon Press are currently running a special price promotion on both hardback and paperback editions of The Race and there are some substantial savings to be had. You can view the offer and order copies here.

perf5.830x8.270.inddFor those who prefer eBook format, the Kindle edition can still be purchased for the special price of £1.99 here.

 

The Novella Award and The Harlequin

I’m delighted to announce that my novella The Harlequin has made the shortlist for this year’s Novella Award. The Novella Award was launched in 2014 under the joint sponsorship of Liverpool John Moores University, Manchester Metropolitan University and Sandstone Press. What makes this award particularly exciting is that only previously unpublished novellas can be entered, thereby bringing attention to brand new writing in a form beloved by readers but less so by publishers. I have always loved the novella form – as a writer it seems to suit me particularly well – and so it’s a genuine thrill to see my work on this particular shortlist.

The Harlequin had an interesting genesis. When I first started writing my novel The Race, the character of Derek, Christy’s brother, had a far bigger role. His alternate persona, Dennis, had a whole section of the book to himself, a narrative episode that, whilst it helped to shed some light on Derek’s character and propensity to violence, also revealed him as a dangerous criminal. During the course of writing Dennis’s story I came to dislike Derek intensely. I ended up resenting his position at the heart of the novel, and so decided to scale back his role. I’ve never regretted that decision – but on the other hand, Dennis’s story seemed too good, or should I say too terrible to waste. I finished it off in draft so I wouldn’t forget it, and then set it aside. It was only after The Race was finished and published that I felt moved to return my attention to Dennis Beaumont, and his nemesis the harlequin.

It’s a dark piece, but I like it a lot and I’m glad I stuck with it. I don’t think the ‘secret’ link between Derek Peller and Dennis Beaumont would be discernible to anyone unless they’d been told about it – the characters’ backgrounds and ways of thinking are very different – but as a writer who enjoys odd connections I’m glad to know it’s there.

The full shortlist for The Novella Award 2015 – and information about the shortlisted authors – can be found here.

The Weight of History

I’ve been thinking for much of this week about a recent essay in Strange Horizons, ‘Weight of History’ by Renay, in which she grapples with the question of what it is that makes a science fiction fan and, more precisely, what is it that a fan should have to know about science fiction. Is there such a thing as ‘the science fiction canon’ and if there is, who gets to say what’s in it? How much of it, if any, do you need to be familiar with before you can legitimately call yourself a fan of SF?SpecFic.2014

I’ve been enjoying Renay’s posts ever since she became a regular columnist at Strange Horizons and together with Shaun Duke she’s just finished putting together a particularly imaginative table of contents for Speculative Fiction 2014, an overview of online SFF criticism. I love the way Renay writes, the passion and open-mindedness of her approach. She is articulate, thoughtful and inclusive, and this essay in particular moved me because although I have a keen interest in science fiction history I often find myself dismayed by the attitudes on display in some of the more, shall we say entrenched segments of fandom, attitudes which seem to be more about a preening display of knowledge (in the manner of a peacock displaying its tail feathers) than the enthusiastic sharing and communication of love for science fiction literature. “How you’re introduced to something matters a lot,” writes Renay, “and if your introduction is a list of decades’ worth of writing and history that you’re subtly shamed for not knowing, that’s going to leave a mark.” Of course it is. A large part of the reason I’m writing this now is because of the frustration and anger I feel, that anyone should be made to feel they don’t know enough of the (frequently excruciating) backlist to be able to make a valid or useful contribution to the conversation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Renay’s essay is the feeling she describes as the ‘cultural pressure to read stories by men':

It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there’s a history you don’t know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing.

So what exactly is going on here? Are the issues of historicity and sexism distinct, or are they inextricably a part of the same problem? I think it’s worthwhile to note here that SF is by no means alone in having this kind of baggage. In the exalted realm of mainstream literary fiction, ‘the canon’ is if anything even more restrictive, the power bases and cabals even more entrenched and aggressively protective of territory. From this we might infer that the canon as it currently operates within the field of science fiction is an almost entirely artificial construct, its main purpose to act as a kind of barrier to more progressive or divergent opinion: you don’t like our canon, we don’t want you in our discussion, end of.

heinlein moon is a harsh mistressAt the same time, nothing exists in a vacuum and history happened. We need to study history, to an extent, to come to a proper understanding of the present. Is it not particularly important that we make ourselves aware of the least savoury aspects of that history in order for it not to be perpetuated?

All interesting questions, and questions that got me thinking about my own experience as a science fiction reader. How did I first come to the genre, and what did I find there? What do I think of the canon, then and now?

I was an obsessive reader from a young age but I honestly cannot say what first brought me to science fiction. My mum reads a lot, and quite widely, but to this day she has no interest in science fiction in any medium (she likes my stuff, by and large, but is still less than comfortable with any of its more overt horror or fantasy elements). My dad prefers spy stories and thrillers. So aside from a couple of Penguin edition John Wyndham novels (which needless to say I devoured avidly as soon as I was old enough to read them) there was no science fiction or fantasy on the shelves in our house.

Perhaps these things are hardwired into our DNA somehow, because I imprinted on Doctor Who from the first episode I saw (at the age of six) and by the time I was old enough to go to the library by myself I was heading straight for the science fiction section, a habit that continued pretty much until I went to university.

The SF section in our local library consisted almost entirely of the now-gollancz best sffamous Gollancz ‘yellowjackets’ – very useful for anyone new to the genre because the books were so instantly recognisable. I used to browse the section happily for hours, eagerly looking for titles I’d not seen yet and knowing in advance that I’d be taking away stories crammed with all the stuff I was most into: weirdness, aliens, space travel, time travel, defiant rebels and renegade scientists, governments gone bad, deadly plagues, ideas and images and landscapes that were new to me and yet already so much ‘my thing’.

I read a lot of Golden Age science fiction, back in the day. I know I read quite a bit of Heinlein, shedloads of Asimov, Frederick Pohl was a particular favourite. I read Dune, I adored the ironical tone of Bob Shaw and Ian Watson – I read everything by Ian Watson I could get my hands on, although at the time I didn’t know he was British, I just presumed he and Shaw were American, like all the others. I loved anything dystopian or post-apoc – there was no bespoke YA back then, so after I’d read Brave New World and 1984 a couple of times I dug around and found bizarre and now totally forgotten books like Arthur Herzog’s Heat and IQ83 (‘Beans, beans, good for your heart…’) and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. I had an inexplicable fondness for a novel by Edmund Cooper called The Tenth Planet, which I read at least five times. There was nothing systematic about my reading. I had no idea really that there was a semi-cohesive genre called science fiction that people were fans of or had conversations about, much less argued and started decades-long feuds over. What did I know? I just loved reading it.

You may have noticed that none of the above titles are by women. Did I avoid SF by women? Did I not like SF by women? Nope. There just wasn’t any on the shelves for me to read. At some point during my early teens I came across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and discovered a sense of wonder and identification that felt quite different from anything I’d found in any of the other, male-dominated science fiction I’d been reading. But I did not identify Le Guin with the Gollancz yellowjackets, and I had no idea she’d written other novels. The experience of reading Earthsea felt very private, a one-off. I did not explore further because I did not know how. (It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much harder it was before the internet, especially for young people, to zone in on the information they needed. Mostly you’d rely on teachers, or what was on the library shelves – if it wasn’t there it didn’t exist.)

I did not notice the lack of science fiction novels by women. Questions like this were never discussed, least of all in school. It didn’t bother me. I was too busy reading. I was certainly aware that many of the female characters in the science fiction I was reading did not appeal to me but I didn’t let that bother me overmuch either – I found sympathetic favourites among the male protagonists instead.

This is exactly how cycles of patriarchal reinforcement work, of course. But I didn’t know that then.

penguin sf omnibusI suppose the first time I started to become aware of science fiction as ‘different’ from other literature, a literature that not everyone automatically liked or understood came when my ‘O’ Level English class was assigned The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus as one of our set texts (we had an amazing teacher, Jean Stupple, who was studying for her MA at the time and was passionate about literature in all its aspects – I owe my whole approach to twentieth century poetry to her), I was rubbing my hands in glee – I couldn’t wait to get stuck into that great big book of science fiction stories – and felt completely bemused when, as it turned out, pretty much half the class didn’t like what they read. Some people felt the stories weren’t ‘serious’ or that they were ‘weird’. Others clearly felt confused about how they should begin to write about them. Quite a few of my classmates opted out of the book and chose another text instead.

I retain a huge fondness for the Penguin Omnibus because it was such a big deal to me at the time. There are stories in it I still remember as being rather good (‘Lot’ by Ward Moore, ‘The End of Summer’ by Algis Budrys, ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ by Frederik Pohl, ‘The Country of the Kind’ by Damon Knight) and other curiosities that I’ll always remember because I read them here first (‘Grandpa’ by James H. Schmitz, ‘The Greater Thing’ by Tom Godwin, ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak). But here’s the thing: looking again at that table of contents this week, I find it utterly heartbreaking to see and to realise, thirty years after I first encountered the book, that out of the thirty-six stories presented, only one (‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine MacLean) is by a woman.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was assembled from the three Penguin science fiction anthologies edited by Brian Aldiss in the early 1960s and containing stories written over a roughly twenty-year period between 1941 and 1962. It was compiled under the guiding principle of presenting an overview of where science fiction was at, what had been achieved, who was writing the most interesting and original and intelligent work. A book to demonstrate to the uninitiated reader, maybe, why they should consider reading science fiction. Clearly for Aldiss at that time, the most intelligent, original and interesting science fiction was being written almost exclusively by men. Clearly it did not matter to him in the least that his ‘comprehensive’ omnibus excluded women writers. I’d be tempted to say it almost looks like a point of principle, the imbalance is so stark, only I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it is more likely that the imbalance happened because Aldiss simply did not notice it, or consider it to be important.

This too is heartbreaking to me. Seeing women’s writing, women’s contribution to science fiction erased in this way – that it is erased unintentionally almost makes it worse – makes me feel furious, and tired, and sad all at once. What we have in the Penguin Omnibus, I see now, is ‘the canon’ writ large, the closed circle being perpetuated, ever onward. Given the writers from that time period Aldiss could have included – C.L. Moore, L. Taylor Hansen, Carol Emshwiller, Kit Reed, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett, Kate Wilhelm, Andre Norton, Naomi Mitchison to name but a handful – had he been bothered or so inclined to seek them out, makes this all the more galling. The inclusion of writers like these would have shifted the tone and emphasis of the anthology substantially towards a more fully formed, multi-faceted vision of the genre, perhaps attracting more readers, more women readers even towards SF. Maybe some of these women, seeing themselves reflected in the table of contents, might even – shock, horror! – have thought about writing some science fiction themselves…

The tired, establishment rejoinder to such observations is that we shouldn’t let issues of gender affect our choice of the best stories. The obvious flaw in that argument is how do we know we’re getting anything like the best stories, if the criteria for selection are pre-set and those who are doing the selecting either refuse or can’t be arsed to look beyond them? I think one of the biggest problems for people unfamiliar with or uneasy about the rhetoric surrounding questions of industry or cultural bias occurs at a level of basic misunderstanding. ‘Where are the active impediments to women writing, submitting, publishing?’ they ask. ‘Where are the editors and commentators and critics deviously working to keep women out of science fiction?’ In the majority of cases, of course, such active impediments and devious editors do not exist, or at least have not existed for some time. No one is arguing that they do. That does not mean that there is not a problem. The problem is systemic, a system of passive reinforcement of the status quo that is so long and deeply established that for large numbers of people – both men and women – living inside it, it is invisible. You only have to look at this sample list of ‘The Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books’ to see how effectively the same-old same-old continues to be given the nod at a grassroots level. Unlike the Penguin Omnibus from the 1960s, this selection was compiled just five years ago. Of the hundred books listed, only twelve women writers. Surely even those who insist there isn’t a problem can see that’s pathetic? That is far from the only list with a similar imbalance, either – just Google and see. Some of them are even worse.

So, getting back to Renay’s original conundrum: is there a continuing cultural pressure to read stories by men, and if there is, what should we do about it?

I think we’ve established that the answer to the first part of the question is yes there is, if only because the vast majority of so-called canonical science fiction that is presented for us to read – in anthologies, in SF Masterworks series, in best-of lists – is by men.  As readers we naturally gravitate towards what is readily available, the names made familiar by repetition, the books people keep insisting that we need to read. In an area where we might feel a bit at sea and especially in need of guidance – Golden Age science fiction, for example – that effect will be doubled. Which is exactly how the system perpetuates itself.

As for what to do, there are various approaches. One of the comments on Renay’s post, from Tansy Rayner Roberts, provides both a superb analysis of the problem and a brilliant solution:

The thing is, the terrible/wonderful truth, is that you can’t catch up. No one can. What you also can’t do is compete on “contextualised reading” because you can’t replicate the experiences that many older SF fans have in common. You can never go back and read Heinlein in the 1970’s or Asimov as a twelve year old (boy) if they didn’t do it already. Just like my elder daughter read Harry Potter differently to me, and my younger daughter will read it differently agains.

But this LITERAL IMPOSSIBILITY to have the same experience with someone else’s canon is quite freeing because you get to make your own history. Your own essential canon. And if you really want “proper context” well, that’s what history books are for.

I can highly recommend finding your own classics. For every “but have you read Heinlein” or “Asimov had a great female character,” you can holler back with “But have you read all of Joanna Russ? I would tackle Heinlein but I’m starting with Delaney. I TRUMP YOU OCTAVIA BUTLER.”

I absolutely love this idea of finding your own classics, of making your own canon, if you will. I have become so dissatisfied with the popular, male-biased consensus view of science fiction history that I’m more than ever inclined to spend extra time researching those lesser known but equally important works that tell a different story of what science fiction is about and where it came from. Or that alter our perspective on the story as it stands. Or that simply give us some other names to think about, for God’s sake. (I’m not massive on Golden Age SF in any case but I’m particularly interested in what started happening with women and science fiction in the 1970s – see Jeanne Gomoll.)

As we each find our own classics, so we all make our own science fiction. How great is that? If someone – a new reader or writer – were to ask me whether they needed to read the canon to be taken seriously I’d say absolutely not (and go tell the person who told you otherwise to STFU). The truth is that all the tropes of Golden Age SF will be familiar to you already – from games, from movies, from the cultural air that you breathe without even thinking about it. In a very real sense, you won’t be missing anything, and so if you can’t stomach the thought of wading through Heinlein or Herbert then don’t. You’d be far better off expending your time in reading science fiction that does inspire your interest, that speaks to you now and is relevant to the genre as it is evolving. Anyone who tells you you need to have read Arthur C. Clarke before you can form an opinion on Jennifer Marie Brissett is just plain wrong. (Those people won’t be reading Brissett anyway, they’ll be too busy getting stuck into David Brin or Greg Bear, ha ha.) In a very real sense, life is too short.elysium.jmb

On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in investigating how we got here from there, then there should be nothing to stop you sampling some of the Golden Age canon, even if simply out of morbid curiosity. Personally I find aspects of the canon fascinating. Very little of it is great literature – I frequently find myself dipping into something I might have read thirty years ago, only to give up in despair after a chapter or two, wondering what on Earth I used to see in this stuff first time round. I think I’d be right in saying that the only works that have made it into my personal canon from those early Gollancz yellowjacket days are the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic and Keith Roberts’s Pavane, both of which I’ve read at least three times since and so can confirm they hold up magnificently. But I love the SF conversation, the SF argument. I like knowing what’s in the canon so I can mess with it a bit. If anyone asked me where would be a good place to start with old school science fiction, I’d say they could do worse than to take a look at The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus. It’s a fascinating overview, both because and in spite of the fact that it’s so flawed. Also, short stories are going to take much less of your time than novels. You can learn a lot by reading anthologies, from any period. Much more fun than slogging your way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (In fact in this case I’d say just…don’t.)

triffids.wyndhamAs for my own science fiction, what does that look like? I think I can safely say that my time with Heinlein and Asimov is over now, although I will probably have a go at rereading Clarke at some point. In spite of their faults, I am always going to love and cherish the works of John Wyndham because they’re a part of who I am as a reader and as a writer (Wyndham made a real effort with his female characters too, which I like to think isn’t a coincidence). I tend to think of the eighties and nineties as a bit of a dead time for me in SF, although I continue to be very interested in especially the British science fiction of the 1970s (not Moorcock, who is overrated in my opinion, but people like Compton, Coney, Cowper, Holdstock, Bailey, Saxton). Ballard, especially the early novels and his genius-level oeuvre of short fiction, is a cornerstone of my belief. I want to read a lot more of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Thomas Disch. I’ve not yet read Octavia Butler and I need to remedy that. I would like to read all of Delany because I think he’s one of the most brilliant and original writers science fiction has ever produced.  I continue to feel frustrated by a lot of contemporary genre SF, excited by the ideas that thrum through them yet disappointed by the rushed or stodgy or merely adequate quality of the writing itself. I hang around on the margins of genre, ceaselessly searching for those precious works which excite and innovate at a science fictional level and make you want to pump the air at their literary quality. That’s my science fiction and I love it.

What I also love more than I can say is the way the genre is beginning to diversify. The proliferation of fin-de-siecle essays about the exhaustion of science fiction were, to my mind, a reflection of the state of a genre that had been drawing from the same well for way too long – that is, the canon, the same old, the pulps, the Gernsbackian tradition. What science fiction desperately needed was a transfusion of new blood, not just younger writers but different writers, writers drawing on influences, traditions and experiences that were not necessarily centred upon Heinlein and Silverberg and the American SF writing of the 1950s. Happily, that transfusion is now beginning to take place.

If I’m drawing my influence from anywhere now I would like it to be from thehossain.efb sincerity and conviction of some of these new writers, writers whose ability to imagine and communicate often leaves what we are doing in western science fiction looking stale and flabby and tired. I want to read books that feel as if they mattered to the writer, urgently. I am finding this quality, more and more often, in novels by writers who come from way outside the canon but who will, and thank God for that, inject new life into it. I think Nnedi Okorafor is writing some of the most interesting stuff around now and her linguistic and stylistic palette is just stunning. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory and everything she writes is not only resplendent in its linguistic prowess but above all it feels meant. There’s a novel just recently come out by Saad Hossain called Escape from Baghdad! and it’s so bitingly funny, so original and so necessary I’d urge anyone and everyone to read it, science fiction fan or no. Especially in the field of short fiction, we are seeing a huge upsurge of work appearing from writers whose backgrounds and influences lie outside of the western mainstream, writers like Usman Malik who was recently nominated for a Nebula, writers like Kai Ashante Wilson and Alyssa Wong who have just been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, writers like Vandana Singh whose work would seem to be one of the perfect fusions of science and fiction out there at the moment, writers like Zen Cho, whose story collection Spirits Abroad is so original and so accomplished I was disappointed not to see it appearing on some of the mainstream literary prize shortlists. Of the short fiction I read last year, ‘Autodidact’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew lingers in my memory for its intensity of feeling and outstanding technical accomplishment. JY Yang’s ‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ has also stayed with me as the work of a powerful new voice with no fear of innovation. One of my favourite stories of this year so far, ‘Documentary’ by Vajra Chandrasekera, comes from a writer whose blog essays on science fiction and some of the issues surrounding it are also of a most superior quality – more, Vajra, please!

zen cho spiritsI hope we’ll be seeing novels from all these writers in due course – indeed Zen Cho already has one forthcoming. These writers and others like them are not just challenging the canon as it stands, they are beginning to reform it. They are making science fiction an exciting, innovative place to be again. As discussions of the Golden Age canon make little sense now without reference to the New Wave that challenged the old order and polarised opinion within it, so our discussions of ‘whither SF’ and the wearing out of genre materials make no sense at all if we don’t talk about what is happening in science fiction right now to reverse those predictions. A static canon is a dead canon. Fossils that are allowed to stay on the shelf simply because they’ve always been there are just that: fossils. We don’t have to throw them all out, necessarily, but surely we should re-examine them in the light of our thoughts, preferences and ambitions as they stand today, rather than leaving our evaluations under the sole control of memory, which is so often fickle, or tradition, which is so often stagnatory?

Science fiction is still the most radical literature alive. Radical means sticking two fingers up at the canon at least once a day. Don’t let anyone tell you what your experience of science fiction should be. This is something you should be deciding for yourself.

The Harvestman by Alison Moore

moore.harvestmanI recently read ‘The Harvestman’, the latest in Nightjar Press‘s ongoing series of standalone short stories, published as chapbooks. I’ve been an admirer of Alison Moore’s stories for years – she’s one of a breed of writers I have to list as my favourite, those whose fiction lurks disconsolately on the threshold of horror fiction, even sidling through the back door every once in a while but always fighting shy of becoming a fully paid-up member of the horror club. I thought Moore’s Booker-shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, was pretty sensational, a masterclass in the short novel form so beloved of Ian McEwan (and way better than On Chesil Beach, in fact). More than that, it grows in the imagination, the kind of novel (less common than you might think) that will deliver an equal and in all likelihood greater measure of enjoyment on a second reading.

I have Moore’s second novel, He Wants, here on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading that, but I thought I’d sample ‘The Harvestman’ in the meantime, to whet my appetite. The story is only a few pages long, but it’s a beauty. During the short time it takes to read it, it is impossible not to become aware of how well made it is. The motifs – long-legged creatures that lurk in the shadows, broken legs, hammers, accidents, repeating patterns of injury, fires, unlucky escapes – are sewn artfully into the narrative like diamonds on velvet, each perfectly placed to maximise its refractive qualities. There is enough detail and insight, in these few thousand words,  to make us feel we know the three main characters – Eliot, Abbey and Big Pete – well enough to recognise them on the street. And yet there is not a single extraneous detail in this story. Authorial control lies uppermost. You could even call ‘The Harvestman’ radically concise.

It occurred to me while I was reading ‘The Harvestman’ that when I say (as I frequently do) that I’m not actually very good at writing ‘real’ short stories, it’s stories like Moore’s that I’m thinking of: stories that fit naturally and comfortably into a few thousand words, stories whose imagery and action are tied together so perfectly that it feels as if one simply could not exist without the other, stories in which nothing happens that does not need to happen and where there are no untethered threads.

You frequently find people describing stories like this as being like jewels: worth more than its size might suggest and perfect from every angle. One of the most notable features of a story like ‘The Harvestman’ is that it has the marvellous natural alignment of a piece of found art, so right within its own skin you can’t imagine it any other way. Which of course belies the horrendous difficulty of writing a thing like that, the endless weighing and polishing to get those facets – the cut – just right.

One of the most important factors in developing your voice as a writer is discovering, by experimenting, by trial and error, in other words, what kind of writer you are. For me, the past couple of years have been about coming to understand that I am a naturally discursive writer, that I am obsessed with creating stories that ‘bag out’, that run off at tangents, and that my main task as this kind of writer is not to eliminate that tendency by streamlining my writing but to bring a sense of cohesion and logical progression to the various loose ends. To attach them to each other to make something that, while it is an intricate collation of minutiae, is also subject to an overarching order.

Rather like a spider’s web, I guess.

In her use of language and in particular the subject matter she chooses, I feel a great affinity with Alison Moore. I feel I understand instinctively why these stories were made, and even some of the how. I’m drawn to a character like Eliot immediately – I totally get that he’s afraid of harvestmen, which is why he notices every detail about them, and even, ironically, looks a little bit like one.

What I could never, ever do though is write his story in the way that Alison Moore has. She, unlike me, can write short stories. She is a master of the form.

Why not treat yourself and buy a copy of ‘The Harvestman’ here? And hurry – this is a limited edition of 200 copies, so they won’t hang about.