The Race – cover artwork revealed!

I’m thrilled to be able to reveal the cover artwork for my novel The Race, out this summer from NewCon Press. The image is by Ben Baldwin, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that it is stunning.

Ben has illustrated my stories many times, and when he enquired about designing the cover artwork for The Race I was delighted. Ben prefers to read a work in full before beginning to think about how he might illustrate it, and his understanding of what I write has always been so intuitive and so accurate I knew I would love whatever he came up with. I was not wrong.

Like all Ben’s work, the cover for The Race has a lyrical and haunting quality that meshes perfectly with the novel’s main themes. I asked Ben if he would design a wraparound cover, because I have a particular liking for them. The design draws inspiration from the work of Escher, with its dance-like, repeating rhythms.

Thank you, Ben. I love it.

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Back to Blighty

That is one long flight.

Including the initial ‘hop’ from Launceston back to Sydney, I spent all of Friday and part of Saturday in the air, basically, and in spite of it offering the more or less unique opportunity to see Sydney Harbour Bridge and the blazing lights of Singapore from the air that is not an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

But what a trip.

The past three weeks have been inspiring and transformative in a multitude of ways. The chance to begin to know Australia and specifically Tasmania feels no less important to me and to my writing than the months I spent in Russia in the late 1980s – although of course the two experiences could hardly have been more different. It’s hard to sum up my thoughts in any coherent way here – I’m still very much in the process of absorbing what I’ve seen – but I will say that I feel so lucky to have visited Australia at what feels like precisely the right time for me, a time when particular sets of ideas and imagery have been recurring and expanding, needing a setting and a context that Tasmania’s spaces and history have allowed me to imagine.

I did try to blog – just once – from Cradle Mountain, where there was no phone signal but (bizarrely) there was WiFi. Sadly that WiFi was too erratic to deal with much, so I gave up on it. I made notes though – loads of notes – and the ideas for a story I’ve been wanting to write have coalesced and strengthened. It’ll be a while before this work sees the light of day – there are other things in the queue ahead of it, and in any case, the process of reading and thinking and storymaking is only just beginning – but I hope that when I’m eventually ready to write it, this (novel?) will recapture and shape and quantify at least a small part of what my time in Tasmania has given me.

It would be impossible to name everyone individually who helped to make the trip so memorable and so marvellous – there are many whose names we never even learned – but it would be wrong to end this post without thanking the people of Tasmania generally, some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, whose openness, welcoming attitude and lively engagement with and commitment to their landscape, heritage, and natural and social history I found liberating and life-changing.

My mum has all the best photos – she’s a better photographer than I am, which makes me a lazy and inconsistent one – so I might post some of hers when she gets around to emailing them across. In the meantime, here are just a few I have here on my hard drive.

'Matrix' waterfall, Sydney (photo by Peter Allan)

On Bondi Beach (photo by Peter Allan)

Descending from Marion's Lookout, Cradle Mountain National Park

Button Grass and Snow Gum


Hazard's Beach

The Nile Chapel, Deddington

Old house, Deddington

Cataract Gorge, Launceston




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This is just to let everyone know that my blog may go quiet for the next couple of weeks. This does not mean I’ve resigned my interest in things science fictional – it means I’m in Australia.

My mum turned 70 this year, and as a special birthday present to herself, decided she wanted us to go on a trip together, first to visit my brother in Sydney, and then on to Tasmania to explore the wilderness parks there. So that’s what we’re doing. We fly out this evening, return on April 11th/12th. This truly is the chance of a lifetime, a journey I could never have afforded to make without my mum’s generosity, so big thanks to her.

We’ll be staying in and around Mole Creek, Cradle Mountain, and St Mary’s on the northeast coast. I’m hoping to record my experiences in a sort-of journal day by day, and already have ideas for stories I might want to write later. I’m sure these will evolve and change as I go along.

What I’m not sure about though is what my internet access is going to be like – some of the places we’re travelling to are pretty far-flung. I will blog from Tasmania if I possibly can – otherwise bear with me, I’ll be posting updates and photos and news as soon as possible after April 12th.

Similarly, if any of you happen to email me over the next couple of weeks and I don’t get back to you as quickly as I would like to, don’t worry – normal service will be resumed asap.

In the meantime, why not provide me with some good old-fashioned awards scandals to get me incensed about on my return..?

See you on the other side.

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3 out of 6 ain’t bad

The 2014 Clarke Award shortlist has just been announced:

~ Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
~ God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
~ The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)
~ Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
~ The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)
~ The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I guessed three correctly, so a better strike rate than last year, a fact that is far less interesting than the shortlist itself. And what a fascinating line-up it is.

I remember noting Nexus as a ‘possible’ when it came out, right back at the beginning of 2013, but reviews were mixed, and so it slipped off my radar. Similarly with the Phillip Mann – I know a lot of people were really looking forward to a new work from Mann, but many were disappointed by what they found. I can’t comment on either of these books personally, because I’ve not even sampled them yet, but it’s interesting to see two outside bets come to the fore like that.

Readers of the Arc blog will know how much I enjoyed and admired Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, but when it came to the Clarke, I suspected its earlier (US) publication date and prior awards exposure might count against it. I’m delighted to be wrong, delighted to see God’s War recognised for the fine piece of work it is. Interesting to see it going head-to-head now with Ancillary Justice, which I also reviewed for Arc. AJ is so much the ‘people’s favourite’ at the moment that its omission from the Clarke would have felt pretty weird, so well done Ann Leckie.  And it’s fantastic to see James Smythe get the nod for The Machine, a novel I loved right from the first page and that thoroughly deserves its shortlisting.

If there’s a unifying theme to this year’s shortlist, it’s that the six shortlisted works are all genre SF – no Ozeki, Atwood, Crumey, Theroux or Eggers this time around. But these are far from conventional choices, and they’re all quite different from each other, too. We have a techno-thriller, a far-future space opera, a near-future psychodrama, a work of philosophical eco-SF, an almost-New-Weird war story, and a many-worlds quantum love story.

It’s a shortlist that no one predicted – but as the Clarke is an award that celebrates the literature of the unexpected, that can’t be a bad thing. I shall be looking forward to seeing more commentary emerge in the coming weeks.

On a personal note, I can’t express how happy I am to see The Adjacent make the line-up. Huge congratulations to Chris, and to all the other shortlistees. May the games commence!

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Judgement day

While I’m writing this, the Clarke Award judges and their chairman are in a meeting, making their final decisions (and, we would hope for nothing less, having their final arguments) about which six novels should make up this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. With the announcement of that shortlist just four days away, I thought it would be fun to cast a last look back over the list of submissions, and make my own final prediction about what that shortlist might look like. I’ve read a few more of the submitted titles since my first guesses, and in any case, two months is a long time in SF – opinions, emphases, gut feelings can change. So let’s do it! Here’s my predicted shortlist for March 18th:

The Secret Knowledge – Andrew Crumey. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s lovely. Like all of Crumey’s work, The Secret Knowledge presents the perfect example of a ‘non-genre’ work that doesn’t shy away from science fictional ideas. It’s beautifully written (with Crumey you take that for granted) but it’s not overwritten. Direct, clear, engaging from the first page, I like this in the same way I liked Robert J. Lennon’s Familiar, but on balance I like it even more, probably because it’s less coy about being SF. I’m full of enthusiasm for The Secret Knowledge, and my Crumey Crusade goes on.

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins. Just a feeling, a sudden hunch. I reckon there’ll be an almighty row about the ending – in that there isn’t one – but that a couple of judges will be passionate enough about this book (the writing is very lovely, and the alt-Russia setting, whatever my own personal misgivings, will command significant attention) to see it win a place among the shortlisted six.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. I think this is going to be a shoo-in. Big, far-future SF, intelligently written and with some engaging core concepts, probably the most discussed SF novel of 2013 and how could it escape notice here?  I think its emotional range is limited, and my eventual verdict on this book will be determined by where and how far Leckie goes from here. But I can understand why the judges would want to select it, and I won’t mind seeing it on the shortlist if they do.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki. An interesting case, this. I think it will divide opinion – some will see it as tediously self indulgent, others will see it as sensitive, beautifully written and radical in its ideas and the way it conveys them. Oddly, it’s kind of both things at the same time. It’s actually a novel with a great deal to say, and – given the complexity of some of the subjects involved – it says it gracefully and well. But it is one of those novels (I’m becoming increasingly impatient with them, interestingly) that dance around their science fictionality without ever properly coming to terms with it. Chris bailed on this book after forty pages. I read the whole thing, with increasing enjoyment and appreciation, but without ever entirely losing my doubts. A sincere and talented writer, certainly, but will she take her Kitschies win as a signal to continue her explorations in SF? I don’t think so, somehow.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest. This book does everything the Ozeki doesn’t do and then some. It’s proper SF, from a master of the genre, genuinely chilling, rapturously beautiful, compellingly mysterious. A novel that readers and critics will still be enthusing and puzzling over a hundred years from now, the judges would have to be mad not to include it.

The Machine – James Smythe. A small but perfectly formed novel. Great core conceit, beautifully executed with excellent sense of place and good characterisation. Demonstrates that British SF is alive and well and doing interesting things. I think this one will be a favourite of all the judges, and will wing it through to the shortlist as a result.

Well, that’s my guess – as it turns out, books from all three of my previous putative shortlists are on there, together with one title that wasn’t on any of them. But it’s so difficult to call! Quite a lot depends on how rigorous this year’s judging panel are going to be about the whole SF/Fantasy divide. If they’re fantasy liberals, we might well see Patrick Ness, Jess Richards, Andrei Kurkov or Wu Ming-Yi making an appearance. If they’re hardline SF purists, there’s a higher likelihood that Paul McAuley or even Greg Egan might make a showing. Meanwhile, I’m still carrying a personal torch for Matt Hill’s The Folded Man, Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, and Tony White’s Shackleton’s Man Goes South.

Well, the decision is being made even as we speak. To say I’d love to be a fly on the wall is an understatement, but as always, all we ask is that the judges give us a shortlist that will make us think, argue, spark decades-long feuds and – most of all – help turn some new readers on to SF and its infinite possibilities for intellectual exploration and creative expression.

Let it be so.

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“Will you come after me if I don’t come back? If you can?”

Reading Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Annihilation this weekend, what struck me most forcibly was how old it felt as a text, how ingrained within the New Weird mythos, how well established. Like the gargantuan pile of abandoned journals discovered by the novel’s narrator (of which the book in your hands must necessarily be one), subjective experience insists it is other than logic dictates.

More than a couple of reviewers liken Annihilation to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. And while it is true that VanderMeer’s novel, in its account of an expedition into a mysterious and evidentially dangerous altered territory, Area X, would appear to owe at least some debt of inspiration to that seminal work, it is also something quite different, something other.

Annihilation doesn’t really remind me of M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing either – and that novel uses a quote from the Strugatskys as its epigraph. A narrative that takes place entirely from within Area X – Roadside Picnic without the wider world, Nova Swing without Saudade, without the spaceport – lends Annihilation a particular claustrophobia that makes the experience of reading it – this found text – entirely unique. The novel is rare generically as well – science fiction that is properly horror and vice versa. Lovecraft fans should adore this – but if you prefer your SFF to be grounded in a scientifically arguable reality you will (just stick with it) be seduced by it too. What you think you’re reading at the start, you turn out not to be. Whilst all the initial stages of this novel’s journey had me thinking of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, by the end my head was full of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

This is a flawlessly written book. The prose is spare yet dense, allusive yet cogent, immersive yet objective. The descriptive passages are magnetic, without ever being overwritten. Perhaps the best summation of these seeming contradictions is to say that Annihilation will answer all your questions about itself, yet will nonetheless remain elusive, powerfully mysterious, and open-ended. In short, this is the very best kind of novel, the kind that eschews intrusive writerly mannerisms and promptings in favour of letting the reader get stuck into forming their own opinions from the very first page.

As a lifelong horror fan, I’m always on the defensive when it comes to what I tend to think of as Hollywoodisms. So there’s a team of explorers who volunteer to form a twelfth expedition into an ominously named patch of territory where the previous eleven expeditions have all gone AWOL in one (bad) way or another? The shadowy organisation that sent them in has forbidden them to use either each other’s first names or functioning digital technology? “Yeah right,” my Scream-self muttered. “Why would they do that?”

I soon found out why they did that. And it made sense. This is what I mean when I say that Annihilation feels established. This novel is so original and strange it feels as if several generations of horror writers have drawn their inspiration from it, rather than the other way around.

It defies logic, but it is so. Annihilation is a superior achievement, and although it works perfectly well as a standalone novel, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second and third instalments of the trilogy.

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My Hugo Ballot 2014

Getting around to this has been a problem. Not because I don’t enjoy compiling nominations lists, because (as everyone who knows me knows) I do. Partly it’s that we’ve been so busy in recent weeks (more updates to follow in due course) that I’ve not had the time to give this ballot the full attention I feel it deserves. There’s also the fact that the more time passes, the more doubts I seem to accrue about the process in general. I’m not about to go off on a massive anti-Hugo rant – my general position on awards is that anything that gets people discussing, enthusing and arguing about books is bound to have more good in it than bad, and as for the Jonathan Ross thing, enough already – it’s just that I’m all too aware of how little I’ve read of what’s actually available. In the fields of short fiction particularly, my percentage coverage is lamentable. It follows from this that I’ll be voting for some works I think are good, rather than those works I know (through exhaustive reading) are at the top of the field. I know I’m no different in this from the vast majority of voters – but what it means, inevitably, is that the same small pool of works tend to enjoy a disproportionate amount of publicity, while other, equally fine and perhaps better works slip through the voting net.

I don’t like this state of affairs, and I don’t think it’s good for the field. I’m not sure what can best be done, but for now I’m going to let the rest of fandom go on arguing about it on my behalf. Time is running short, and if I’m going to nominate I need to get my ballot sorted pretty much now.

Maybe by next year I’ll have found a way of solving the various nomination dilemmas (yeah right). Until then, for what it’s worth, here’s my Hugo ballot for 2014:


Best Novel

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood. Go read Adam Roberts’s review at Strange Horizons if you want to understand my reasons for nominating this heavily flawed, unique work of science fiction. Atwood should be celebrated, in my opinion, as a jewel in SF’s crown. So she doesn’t properly understand the nomenclature, so what?? She can write, by God.

The Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates. The fifth instalment in Oates’s decades-spanning loosely connected ‘gothic’ series. Oates is a genius, and I don’t use the word lightly. She should win everything.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest. My favourite science fiction novel of 2013, bar none.

A Stranger in Olondria – Sofia Samatar. I think Samatar’s work is remarkable, full stop. Her command of language is superlative. She is a joy to read.

The Machine – James Smythe. I know I keep going on about this one, but it really is that good!


Best Novella

Memory Palace – Hari Kunzru. I’m nominating the text, not the exhibition. 10,000 words of top notch SF: radiantly alive, radical, a showpiece of the novella form.

Iseul’s Lexicon – Yoon Ha Lee. One of the most original, accomplished and compelling voices in SF today.

Dogs with their Eyes Shut – Paul Meloy. I’ve loved Meloy’s work ever since I stumbled across his collection Islington Crocodiles, which should have won every ‘Best Collection’ award going in its year of publication. My only problem with Meloy is that he doesn’t write enough!

Burning Girls – Veronica Shanoes. I came across this while I was reading for my Short Fiction Snapshot feature at Strange Horizons. My only reason for not selecting it was that it was too long to fit the format. It’s a remarkable work.

Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne Valente. I love the way this is told, but then Valente is always amazing, so what did I expect? Wonderful work.


Best Novelette

‘Paranormal Romance’Christopher Barzak. I love Barzak’s voice, his tendency towards metafiction. He’s just a very good writer, and should be more widely appreciated.

‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ – Ted Chiang. I love Chiang’s documentary approach, the way his words, and his worlds, sneak up on you. I also love stories about writing, about language. A damn fine writer.

‘Cave & Julia’ – M. John Harrison. The best short fiction of 2013. Period.

‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats’ – Caitlin R. Kiernan. I love everything Kiernan writes, and this is a classic.

‘Meet the President’ – Zadie Smith. Clearly out of the same mindset, stylewise, as her novel NW, Smith’s novelette is weird, spiky, interesting. Smith’s recently expressed interest in writing science fiction was greeted with the usual chorus of doubt from certain sections of fandom, Surely a writer like this should be encouraged??


Best Short Story

‘A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill’ – Elizabeth Knox. I wrote about this for my Short Fiction Snapshot feature at Strange Horizons and it has stayed with me ever since. I love Knox’s knowingness, her effortless command of genre tropes, and I love this story.

‘The 9th Technique’ – China Mieville. Distributed as a chapbook to members of the 2013 World Fantasy Convention as an ‘apology’ for his non-attendance, this is a story that deserves wider exposure. Written in a terse, tense prose that feels more pared down than Mieville’s more familiar high baroque but that is equally (if not more) compelling, I found it extraordinary, and wished it had gone on for longer.

‘Selkie stories are for Losers’ – Sofia Samatar. Loved this story. It’s a wonderful introduction to Samatar’s richly textured, evocative prose.

‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer‘- Kenneth Schneyer. I discovered this via Rachel Swirsky’s invaluable annual Short Fiction Recommendations and I’m so glad I did. Like Rachel, I like the art stuff, which is brilliantly done. Love it, wish I’d written it.

‘The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World’ – Catherynne Valente. Another one I discovered while reading for the Short Fiction Snapshot. For me, it seemed too good to spoil by trying to write about it.


Best Collection

North American Lake Monsters – Nathan Ballingrud. I’ve not read all the stories in this volume, but I’ve read enough to know how much I admire what Ballingrud is doing. Wonderful stuff.

The Ape’s Wife – Caitlin R. Kiernan. For me, Kiernan is one of the very finest writers working today, in any genre, period. Everything of hers I read, I wish I’d written.

Conservation of Shadows – Yoon Ha Lee. I just love these stories, and most especially the original forms many of them take. Maths, science, music, warfare – what more could you ask for in a collection? Lee’s command of language and imagery feels effortless and exhilarating. A wonderful discovery.

The Story Until Now – Kit Reed. I was put in the way of this volume by Paul Kincaid via Strange Horizons. Reed is one of those writers who seems criminally underappreciated.

How the World Became Quiet – Rachel Swirsky. And finally, a collection from Swirsky! Swirsky has a flawless poetic touch I’ve always envied, combined with pure, natural storytelling ability. Many of these mini-novels are just breathtaking.


Best Anthology

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells – Datlow/Windling. Some fine writers, some fine stories. I do find that my taste in SFF often coincides with Ellen’s, and so it’s no surprise that I always enjoy her anthologies.

Rustblind and Silverbright – David Rix. The fact that I have a story in this anthology has nothing whatsoever to do with my nomination. I’m nominating Rustblind because I love David’s concept. This is a properly themed anthology, beautifully arranged and considered, and amounting to so much more than many of the usual kind of ‘rag bag’ reprint anthologies. This project was a genuine labour of love for David, and deserves far wider notice.

The Lowest Heaven – Shurin/Perry. Great concept, and includes stories from some of my favourite new writers.


Best Related Work

The Transgressive Iain Banks – Colebrook/Cox

Here Be Dragons – Stefan Ekman

Speculative Fiction 2012 – Shurin/Landon

Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer

Afrofuturism – Ytasha L. Womack

For the most part, shamefully, I’ve only sampled bits and pieces of all of these. But I think the Best Related Work category is important, and unfairly neglected, and the above works all seem, for their various reasons, worthy of notice.


Best Dramatic Presentation (short form)

Another category where I feel inadequate to nominate. I love genre TV (it’s a favourite means of relaxation) but am so woefully behind on it my opinions are mostly valueless. We’re working our way through Fringe at the moment – lamentable, but such good fun I can’t resist it (although Chris most certainly could) – so you see how out of synch we are with the rest of fandom. Anyway, I’m nominating the below because (I confess!) I loved it, even if the appalling Christmas episode did its best to wipe all my good DW feelings off the map forever.

The Day of the Doctor

Best Dramatic Presentation (long form)

I found myself very disappointed by genre film in 2013. I don’t like franchises in any year, which always cuts down my choices in any case. Perhaps my biggest sad surprise though was how much I disliked Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (and for the record, I loved Primer). I’ve seen UC compared with late Malick, to which I would reply: yes, and that’s precisely the problem (have you seen To The Wonder? If not, you’ll find it in the dictionary under Self Indulgent). By far my favourite pure genre film in 2013 was Neil Jordan’s vampire movie Byzantium, which seemed to me to be the perfect small film. Other than that, I’m clutching at straws.

An Adventure in Space and Time


The East

Best Semiprozine

Strange Horizons. Because it rocks. Because the reviews section is second to none, because it actively seeks to encourage diversity across all areas and because its commitment to supporting and furthering excellence in SFF today is unquestioned. It’s largely because of Strange Horizons that I became interested in online fandom in the first place.

Interzone. Because it will always mean so much to me, and to British SF.

Los Angeles Review of Books (science fiction section). For publishing some of the most engaging and in-depth SF criticism around. I love this mag.

Lightspeed. A wonderful source of new fiction. Superb magazine.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Unique. Beautiful. Serious. Should be way better known.


Best Fanzine

The Book Smugglers


SF Mistressworks

SF Signal

The Speculative Scotsman


Best Fan Writer

Abigail Nussbaum. For me, Abigail is in a class of her own at the moment. She writes with all the passionate enthusiasm and insider knowledge of the true fan, whilst combining these assets with the erudite articulacy of a professional critic. Abigail’s pieces are a joy to read, and whether I wholly agree with her opinion of a book, story or argument or not, she always leaves me with something to think about, some new angle to check out. I’m in awe of her knowledge and her skill. She absolutely deserves a Hugo, and her shortlisting is long overdue.

For my other nominations in this category, I’m going for writers I always love reading, people who speak their minds – usually in gloriously entertaining fashion – whilst displaying the objectivity and core knowledge necessary to a rigorous and reasoned argument and without recourse to lazy ad hominems. (Anyone who resorts to ad hominems, ever, is going to have to work pretty hard to make me find lasting value in their offerings.) Here are four great fan writers whose reviews, postings and comments I always look forward to and wish there were more of:

Liz Bourke

Kameron Hurley

Martin Lewis

Jonathan McCalmont

Best Editor – Short Form

John Joseph Adams

Andy Cox

Ellen Datlow

Michael Kelly

Ian Whates

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Helen Marshall

Sofia Samatar

E.J. Swift

Enough said.

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SpecFic 2013

I’m very chuffed indeed to announce that I have a piece in the forthcoming Speculative Fiction 2013, an anthology bringing together the best SF essays, reviews and comment published online during 2013. Edited by the wonderful Ana Grilo and Thea James of The Book Smugglers, you can read the full (and awesome) list of contributors here.

It’s fashionable to criticise the new ‘democracy of self expression’ for the trivial arguments, poor writing and total bollocks that inevitably get spewed forth by the truckload on an hourly basis. The great thing about that though is that all you have to do to get rid of it is close the tab, and no amount of nonsense negates the fact that one of the finest aspects of internet fandom is the way it is allowing new writers, bloggers, critics and reviewers to develop their voices. Even in the few years I’ve been active online myself, I’ve seen an increase in the quality, robustness and diversity of debate in and around SF and I find that very exciting. This kind of ongoing online conversation between readers, writers and fans simply does not exist in the same way in the world of mainstream literature – just one more thing that makes SF such a unique and stimulating field to be working in.

As someone who very much enjoys the theory-and-criticism side of SF (a good argument, in other words) I feel honoured to be a part of this anthology.

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Complications makes the GPI shortlist!

I’m particularly excited to announce that the French edition of The Silver Wind, Complications, has been shortlisted for France’s best known award for speculative fiction, the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire.

The GPI has been running since 1974, and introduced categories for works in translation in the 1990s. There have been some illustrious winners over the years. You might call the GPI the ‘French Clarke’ – except the GPI goes a mite further than the Clarke Award in offering award categories for Best Short Fiction and Best YA along with the Best Novel category. The GPI also honours manga, graphic novels and essays.

The short fiction category is open to both individual stories and whole collections. I’m thrilled to see Complications shortlisted alongside works by Ken Liu, Al Reynolds and Ian McDonald among others.

My amazing translator, Bernard Sigaud, is also shortlisted for his work on Complications for the Prix Jacques Chambon, the category of the GPI specifically dedicated to highlighting the work of translators. I’m delighted for him, and also for my publishers, Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot at Editions Tristram, who have put so much passion, energy and expertise into bringing Complications to a wider audience.

You can see details of all the GPI shortlists at the award’s official website here.

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Women in SF #3

Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

On a forgotten day some time between two hundred and three hundred years ago, the musician Juliana Cataveiro pulled her daughter’s limp body from a street flooded with the South Atlantic and carried her home through a hurricane. The storms raged for three days. During that time, Juliana sat in the attic of her home with her daughter and sang to her. On the first day, the South Atlantic plucked things from houses and bore them down the streets in strange, floating processions. On the second day, the wind took the roof off Juliana’s house. She dared it to take the body of her child and it did not. The child turned blue and cold. When the rain ceased and the sea fell flat and glimmered as if it had never stirred, never mind drowned souls in their hundreds, Juliana Cataveiro burned her daughter, put the ashes in a tin and her guitar on her back and came south, which was the only way to go. (Cataveiro p107)

While it may be true that everybody has a book in them, what proves your mettle as a writer is how you handle that difficult second novel.

It’s often said of first novels that they rely too heavily on autobiography. You know the kind of thing – stories of teenage angst and dysfunctional families, misfit loners finding themselves in the big city and naive ingenues falling in with the wrong kind of company amidst the dreaming spires all remain popular subjects among debut novelists. There’s nothing wrong with these subjects per se – their very universality makes them readily accessible and often compelling. But with so many pre-existing novels in the same vein, it becomes increasingly difficult for the aspiring novelist to bring anything new or interesting to these timeworn themes.

The first-time SF novelist faces a similar obstacle to originality. While she may not draw so heavily on her own childhood and adolesence, she may find herself tempted – subconsciously or otherwise – to keep the books and stories she read and reread during those formative years too close to hand. It was these novels that inspired her to become a writer, after all. Who would not aspire to creating such magic? And so the derivative cycle of genre fiction continues.

The most positive attribute of E. J. Swift’s debut novel Osiris was undoubtedly the writing. The book possessed a stylistic assurance that takes many writers two or three novels to come close to mastering. Its finely tuned lyricism, gentle but persuasive, demonstrated that Swift is an author who takes her craft seriously and to whom language is of central importance. Reading Osiris, you were left in no doubt that you were in the presence of a sensitive artist at work, and certain scenes – the opening execution scene in particular – continued to resonate long after the story itself had been concluded.

For me though, the story itself had problems that became impossible to ignore. I’d read it all before, basically: spoiled little rich girl meets poor revolutionary boy and gradually becomes alive to the horrifying injustices inherent in the system that supports her. Girl goes against corrupt and decadent family to fight the system alongside boy. Regime is challenged, calamity ensues. An overcautious structure also results in a serious pacing issue – as information is needlessly repeated, any sense of urgency is lost. The end product winds up somewhat stodgy and a tadge overcooked.

Swift finished the manuscript of Osiris soon after completing an MA in Creative Writing. There was then a delay of some years while the author found first the right agent and then the right publisher – problems every writer gets to know about, sooner or later, but that inevitably result in some level of authorial dissociation. The writer moves on, tries new things, starts a new novel. By the time that first book comes out, there is every risk that it will feel like old material. In spite of admiring the novel’s ambition and being impressed by the Swift’s evident feel for language and imagery, I could never escape the sense that in terms of its overall concept, Osiris was not original enough to stand out from all the other, similar debuts that had gone before it.

Swift’s follow-up, Cataveiro, is a whole different story. In terms of its plot, those rather predictable black-and-white certainties are gone, replaced by a world of swarming ambiguities. The pacing issues have been solved, as the action flows effortlessly forward in a series of cleverly constructed intertwining stories. Osiris‘s jejune lovers make way for nuanced, individually defined characters whose motives and drives range over a broad canvas of possibilities. Most gratifying of all, the standard dystopian set-up has given way to a compellingly drawn post-collapse world that feels scorchingly real and virtually limitless in its horizons. This is a very human book, a boldly compassionate book, a novel bulging with important questions about our own world which cannot fail to engage the sympathy and imagination of the reader. I try to avoid the term worlduilding wherever possible, but I have to concede that I found the worldbuiding in Cataveiro to be a thing of great beauty: both robust and poetical and – that word again – enviably assured.

Cataveiro is cunningly conceived to work as a standalone. Although the action takes place shortly after the events of Osiris, you don’t need to have read Osiris to make sense of it. Defying the laws of trilogy, Swift has created a work that issues naturally from of the events of her first novel and yet dispenses with all but one of that novel’s main characters. There are no tedious recaps, no desperate striving for continuity. Instead there is a whole new story, with Osiris nestled within that story as an integral yet unobtrusive part.

Swift’s writing also shows increasing maturity. There is a tactile quality, a perfume, an innate sensitivity to Swift’s control of language that both echoes and builds upon everything that proved most satisfying in the first book. There are no dull sentences. Swift’s interest in her characters and her story shines throughout the novel’s entire length. There are passages in Cataveiro that approach radiance. There is nothing so gratifying as watching a talented writer begin to fulfil her promise, and such solid development from one book to the next is a pleasure to see. I have the feeling though that Swift is only beginning to flex her muscles here. Should she choose – and I’m sure she will – to experiment still further with form, to stretch the boundaries of the genre in which she works, to break entirely free of the particular set of reader expectations that trilogy-writing inevitably entails, then I think she could be not just very good but seriously brilliant.

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