Blade Runner 2049: man-film or meh film?

‘The 2017 follow-up [to the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner] simply couldn’t be any more of a triumph: a stunning enlargement and improvement.’ So says Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review of Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated blockbuster. He gushes five stars all over it, insists we all rush out and watch it on the biggest screen possible. I love the original movie (because of course I do) and with the pre-release press almost unanimously positive I was massively looking forward to seeing this new one. Was I set up to be disappointed? Is it possible for big-budget science fiction to actually deliver any more? (I’m thinking of my personal catalogue of recent let-downs: Gravity, Interstellar, Arrival, and I’m not even going to mention Alien: Covenant.)

What was it about the original? Something about the texture, the lighting, the score (of course), Rutger Hauer (of course), but most of all the un-pin-downable nature of a film with themes too big to be easily summarised, its open-endedness, its inexplicability, the sense that for those two-and-some hours we were living in that world, experiencing the claustrophobia of a society that had lost its moral compass, that – in spite of its technological advances – was coming unspooled.

This past couple of days – since people have actually started seeing the film, in other words – I’ve read quite a bit online about how depressingly retrograde Blade Runner 2049 is in its treatment of women. Personally I feel divided on that subject. Whilst the background sets do feature giant-sized avatars of naked ladies, and the AI-girlfriend trope is dealt with much more interestingly in Spike Jonzes’s film Her, Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks are nonetheless every bit as front and centre as Jared Leto and Ryan Gosling. If the film is indeed a man-film, I think it’s more in its overall attitude and governing ambience: it is supremely dishonest about violence, as Hollywood action movies are mostly always dishonest about violence, It steamrollers through the idea of any form of problem-solving that is not based around the physical exercise of power. It simplifies and erases. It negates the idea of people (and by people I also mean replicants) living their lives.

Instead of the tears in rain monologue, we get ‘if one of us can have a child, that proves we have souls’. Or something. Dodgy sentiment, poor writing.

‘The sequel slightly de-emphasises the first film’s intimate, downbeat noir qualities in favour of something more gigantic and monolithic,’ says Bradshaw. Yeah, Pete, and that’s precisely the problem. It’s all just a little bit… bland?

I like Denis Villeneuve. In spite of his escalating fame, he keeps trying to make interesting films. Some of his movies (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) have been amazing and only one (Sicario) has been actively awful. I didn’t hate Blade Runner 2049. I just feel a bit meh about it.

Harrison Ford is great in it, though, I’ll give it that.

From Peterborough… to Paris!

Fantasycon this year was in Peterborough, a city I’d never previously visited and a venue – The Bull hotel – that I was particularly keen to spend time in as it was the site of Chris’s very first Eastercon, back in 1964.

A great weekend, and with just a couple of days’ turnaround – scarcely time to repack my luggage – I’m about to head out again, this time to Paris!

I’m on a month’s writing residency – a unique window of time in which to read, research, come to know a fantastic city a little better and most of all, to get into gear for writing my next book. I shall also be doing a bit of promotion for the French edition of The Race, which was published last month. If you happen to be in Paris on October 10th, why not come along to Librairie Charybde, where I’ll be taking part in an evening event with Carola Dibbell, whose extraordinary near-future novel of a post-pandemic America, The Only Ones, I’ve just finished reading. (Yet another example, if any were needed, of why the Clarke Award should be opened to US-published novels…)

I’m intending to blog as usual while I’m away, so watch this space. In the meantime, it’s back to the packing, and huge thanks to my wonderful French publishers, Editions Tristram, and La Maison de la Poesie for arranging such a marvellous opportunity.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time so I’m just going to say it: if Nicola Barker were a man, she would immediately become Significant, hailed as one of most exciting and innovative British writers of the postmodern era. As things stand, she is more usually sidelined into ‘quirky’, ‘whimsical’, ‘difficult’ or ‘depressing’. She has ‘a devoted cult following’, of course she does, and anyway, she was shortlisted for the Booker, so what does she have to moan about?

Why then is she still not discussed alongside Pynchon, Foer, Amis, Rushdie or even Mitchell? Barker’s oeuvre is remarkable in its depth of field, its social comment, its capacity for formal innovation. Her dialogue is incisive and brilliantly funny. The stories she tells offer an often excoriating commentary on the way we live now. Yet Barker is only ever discussed as an anomaly, a domestic comedian, an acquired taste. Why is this? The answer seems more depressingly clear with each new novel: women writers (still) aren’t expected to do this kind of stuff, so the narrative they get written into becomes subtly twisted.

“I know that piece.” The Stranger – Savannah – nodded towards ****, but his eyes remained fixed on me. “There are three parts to it. The Prelude was written long after the other two movements, but now it sits at the start. It is wistful, melancholy. There are bells ringing throughout. And an organ plays Bach. The composer – Augustin Barrios – was of indigenous blood. A great Romantic. A genius.”

“He died, in poverty, of syphilis,” **** sneered. “What possible romance is there in that?”

Nicola Barker’s new novel H(A)PPY is remarkable in many ways.  The dystopia it portrays is all the more chilling because it is presented as a utopia: there are no mass killings, no persecution, no banned books. All that is understood to be in the past. The social coercion that exists – to be perfect, to be happy, to discard the depressing march of history in favour of universal progress – exists because it has been chosen, because people accede to it willingly. No one is hungry, confused or in need. For Mira A, her desire to find out about a particular figure from the past – the Paraguayan musician and composer Augustin Barrios – is dangerous only in that it throws her preconceptions – her notion of happiness – into doubt. Like turning back the corner of a rug to reveal the dirty floor beneath, one small revelation can lead to a greater, more far reaching revelation that has huge implications. So it is for Mira A. So it is with H(A)PPY. So it is for the question over the reception of Barker’s writing.

In H(A)PPY, even the choice of the guitarist as hero is significant. The guitar has often been looked down upon as a folk instrument, an instrument lacking in subtlety, flexibility or repertoire, insignificant precisely because of its accessibility. The great novels of music have tended to place their focus upon the piano or the violin – glamorous and complicated, the instruments of record for tortured, glamorous, misunderstood males. Barker’s choice of the guitar – available to everyone, easily portable, a ready accompaniment and partner to the human voice, the natural instrument of protest – is in itself an act of rebellion, a way of smuggling subversive ideas between the cracks of cultural orthodoxy.

I scowl and turn again to the native – the performer – the patriot – the humiliation – the farce. Which of these two should I address? I wonder. Which do I prefer? Both are unreal. Both have been so carefully, so painstakingly constructed. Can these two – the one so civilised, so polite, so careful: the other so fearless and ridiculous and romantic – be merely one entity? Is that feasible? How might I conceivably hope to address them when I am not even able to unite them successfully within my own consciousness.

The native Barrios sits down on a pew and begins to play. The kneeling Barrios covers his ears. 

Here Barker illuminates the duality of Barrios, a natural genius forced to adopt Western models of excellence in order to be taken seriously as a composer, whilst simultaneously being driven to perform his nationality in order to enhance his stage persona. As she is drawn to examine Barrios’s inner conflict in greater depth, so Mira A discovers a similarly corrosive dichotomy within herself.

H(A)PPY addresses Barker’s recurring concerns – class, celebrity, capitalism, the slippery, explosive power of the written word – whilst also exploring questions of power inequalities between citizens and state, Western nations and indigenous peoples. I found in H(A)PPY some of the same quietly oppressive quality that characterises Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, a chilling vision of the alternate near future that is all the more effective for being so understated.

As science fiction, H(A)PPY is brilliant: inventive and thought provoking and unlike anything you’ll have read so far this year. In the games it plays with scrambled fonts and typographic art, you will probably be reminded of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, always a good thing in my book. Barker recommends reading H(A)PPY whilst listening to the music of Barrios, a ploy some might dismiss as a gimmick but that I would go along with, one hundred percent. In fact it’s a shame the publisher couldn’t have gone the extra mile and included a CD recording tucked into the back flap. Luckily you don’t have to search far to find what you’re looking for. As a novel about music, H(A)PPY is one of the most imaginative and powerful I’ve ever read.

In many ways, this is the novel I wanted Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality to be. H(A)PPY is more successful for me as science fiction through being more explicit, and Barker’s writing about Augustin Barrios was never not going to resonate. I love this book. I think Nicola Barker is a genius. Should H(A)PPY end up on the Clarke shortlist in 2018? Hell, yes.

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (1960)

The first piece of fiction I ever read by Algis Budrys was his 1958 short story ‘The Edge of the Sea’. My memory was that I’d encountered it as part of Brian Aldiss’s Penguin Science Fiction anthology, but looking down the table of contents I see this is not so: Budrys’s contribution to that anthology is the better-known ‘The End of Summer’, a story I also loved, but that did not perplex and captivate me to quite the same extent as ‘The Edge of the Sea’, a weirdly abstract tale in which a lone man struggles to retrieve a weighty and perhaps alien artefact from the incoming tide. In many ways, ‘The Edge of the Sea’ could be read as a sketch for the longer, more complicated novel that was to follow two years later and that is probably Budrys’s best-known work: a man alone, big dumb object, existential horror.

The premise of Rogue Moon is simple: a mysterious Formation has been discovered on the moon, some sort of alien artefact in the form of a labyrinth. From the outside, the dimensions of this object appear finite – passing through and out the other side should be a simple matter. For scientific genius Ed Hawks, the object on the moon has become a life’s obsession. As the inventor of a matter duplication process, he has provided the US navy with the perfect means not only for sending men (the idea that women might also make suitable astronauts is not even considered here) into space, but also for discovering the ultimate purpose of the lethal Formation. Explorers subjected to Hawks’s process are placed into a kind of lucid sleep, while their digital twin is projected to a remote location – in this case the moon – to complete the mission. As the novel opens, none of these duplicated explorers have managed to survive inside the labyrinth for more than a couple of minutes. What is more, the shock of experiencing their own death, even by proxy, has in every instance propelled the surviving astronaut back on Earth into a catatonic stupor.

Hawks is in despair at finding a solution. But now the project’s chief PR man Vincent Connington claims to have discovered the perfect candidate, a man whose relationship with fear falls somewhere between addiction and disdain. Al Barker is a professional daredevil with a jaded attitude to life and to humanity. He doesn’t care much about the ethical implications of being duplicated – just show him the labyrinth, people. But as both Barker and Hawks will discover, new technology often comes with unforeseen side effects, and how those side effects are dealt with often lies closer to the heart of the story than the outward premise.

In Rogue Moon, Budrys was trying out what was then a wholly new approach to science fiction. Budrys’s novel constantly shifts the action – the astronauts, the moon, the labyrinth – into the background, while insisting that the human concerns – the antagonism between Connington and Hawks, the nascent relationship between Hawks and the young fashion designer Elizabeth Cummings, Al Barker’s spiritual nihilism – are placed front and centre. It is not until the final sequence – Hawks’s and Barker’s joint journey into the Formation – that the sense of wonder that is implicit in Rogue Moon‘s premise is allowed to surface.

In its foregrounding of philosophy and such novelistic concerns as literary realism, Rogue Moon can reasonably be argued as an important precursor of science fiction’s New Wave. Budrys is clearly seeking to show new ways in which science fiction can be radical, and for this reason alone the novel is interesting. Budrys clearly struggles with the long form though, and there are portions of Rogue Moon that come over as clunky and obvious: heavy philosophical discussions delivered in the manner of a lecture, vast tracts of exposition, characters firing off deeply meaningful soliloquies as if their interlocutor existed solely as a repository for information rather than as a participant in the drama.

The gender politics of Rogue Moon are also pretty much unsalvageable. Budrys tries hard to grapple with The Question of Woman, yet still cannot resist having Al Barker’s girlfriend Claire Pack – callously vampish in a Ballardian kind of way – deliver most of her dialogue while clothed in a bikini, and sets Hawks up as being immediately, irresistibly attractive to a woman half his age and with no purpose in the narrative other than to sympathise with her hero’s existential agony and make him nourishing meals. Hawks – like Budrys – obviously wants to be better at this stuff than he is, but keeps coming off like Boris Johnson trying to get to grips with racism in modern Britain:

“Women have always fascinated me. As a kid I did the usual amount of experimenting. It didn’t take me long to find out life wasn’t like what happened in those mimeographed stories we had circulating around the high school. No, there was something else – what, I don’t know, but there was something about women. I don’t mean the physical thing. I mean some special thing about women, some purpose that I couldn’t grasp. What bothered me was that here were these other intelligent organisms, in the same world with men, and there had to be a purpose for that intelligence. If all women were for was the continuance of the race, what did they need intelligence for? A single set of instincts would have done just as well. And as a matter of fact, the instincts are there, so what was the intelligence for? There were plenty of men to take care of making the physical environment comfortable. That wasn’t what women were for. At least, it wasn’t what they had to have intelligence for… But I never found out. I’ve always wondered.” (RM p 124, Masterworks edition)

You see what I mean? Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that when I went in search of better discussions of gender equality in 1960s fiction I struggled to find any – or at least any written by men. I started out thinking that the gender issues in Rogue Moon must be a science fiction problem, but no, just a men problem. It turns out that for any real insight into societal attitudes towards women at the time Rogue Moon was published – women as individuals or as artists or indeed any aspect of gender politics – you’re going to need to read some women writers.

The unthinkingly human-centric (and for that read Western-centric) aspect of Rogue Moon is also troubling, especially now. Budrys seems unable to imagine a universe whose fate is not to be conquered by the Right Stuff, striding out to the stars and all that, just as Hawks and Connington cannot imagine not taking the moon Formation apart (and thereby destroying it) to see how it works. It would be another ten years before Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explored the event site in Roadside Picnic, suggesting in the process that for a species in its existential infancy, a policy of ‘look, don’t touch’ might be a more prudent approach to the exploration of our environment.

And yet. Although as a novel Rogue Moon is only partially successful, it is still worth reading, perhaps even because of its own inner contradictions and turmoil, In Algis Budrys we see – always – a writer who cares about his subject matter, We sense that Hawks’s struggle with questions of mortality, eternity and identity are also his own. This is a vital book – a book in which the ideas are alive and evolving and of ongoing importance to the writer. In a work like this – as in much ground-breaking science fiction – the rough edges and raw nerve are part of the appeal. Novels should not be perfect artefacts – the best remain, almost inevitably, works in progress.

The core ideas in Rogue Moon have clearly been influential on other writers – the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, Stanislaw Lem in Solaris, even Christopher Priest, more than thirty years later, in The Prestige. More than that, though, when Rogue Moon hits the mark we are offered glimpses of a literary approach that is unique to science fiction, both marvellously timeless and fascinatingly of its time. The passages dealing with Hawks’s and Barker’s entry into the labyrinth show Budrys at his best – and present us with a vision that is unearthly and breathtaking:

The wall shimmered and bubbled from their feet up into the black sky with its fans of violet light. Flowers of frost rose up out of the plain where their shadows fell, standing highest where they were furthest from the edges and so least in contact with the light. The frost formed humped, crude white copies of their armour, and, as Hawks and Barker moved against the wall, it lay for one moment open and exposed, then burst silently from steam pressure, each outflying fragment of discard trailing a long, delicate strand as it ate itself up and the entire explosion reluctantly subsided. (RM p 161)

In spite of its flaws, I became rather fond of Rogue Moon. A full fortnight after reading, it’s still very much present, which leaves Budrys’s mission as a writer successfully accomplished. I’ll be returning to Budrys’s work, no question, and hope to report my findings here in due course.

And now: thinking about Strange Horizons

As some of you may know, Strange Horizons are currently in the thick of their annual fund drive. Strange Horizons, one of the longest-running speculative fiction magazines on the internet, is staffed entirely by volunteers. Profits from the fund drive are spent on paying writers, expanding the scope and variety of current content, and initiating new projects.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was Strange Horizons that inspired me to get back into writing science fiction criticism. From the moment I first became aware of the magazine in the middle 2000s, the quality, diversity and insight of SH’s critical content was a stand-out for me. I’ve now been reading Strange Horizons regularly for a decade (gulp) and I’ve seen the range and depth of its coverage increase, gaining new confidence and insight year on year. Strange Horizons now boasts a quite remarkable roster of reviewers, both old (and not so old) regulars and an increasing number of new voices. I am enormously proud to be one of them. Again, it is no exaggeration to say that I cannot imagine the landscape of SFF without Strange Horizons.

Please give what you can to keep this remarkable institution running – or help by spreading the word. A growing number of our most inspirational fiction writers can count a sale to Strange Horizons as their first published story. As a reader, writer and critic, I know i’ll keep returning to Strange Horizons, that that first glimpse of the new issue will continue to be a highlight of every Monday.

Just in case you need more convincing, here is a brief selection of some of my personal SH highlights in critical writing from 2017 so far:

The Unthinkability of Climate Change: thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement by Vandana Singh. Possibly the most important essay Strange Horizons has yet published.

Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War edited by Douglas Lain by Samira Nadkarni. Again, a vital piece of work, raising important questions about the Western-centric nature of so many SF dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios and war writing generally.

Blair Witch by Shannon Fay. As a massive fan of the original film, and one who still can’t quite believe this pointless sequel was even green-lighted, I found Fay’s analysis highly enjoyable and critically spot on.

Alien: Covenant by Mazin Saleem. Still on film, I’ve rarely had more fun reading a review, especially a review of a film I hated. Saleem’s knowledge, sense of irony and sheer joy in his subject matter is a rare delight. For another side of Saleem’s criticism, see his equally excellent review of Hassan Blasim’s anthology Iraq+100.

The Queue by Bazma Abdel Aziz by Gautam Bhatia. I’ve not read this book yet but it is very much on my reading list, and I can’t not mention Gautam Bhatia, who is one of the finest critics on SH’s roster. I live in hope that he will agree to be a Sharke when the Sharkes swim again because that would be something to see…

Thank you, Strange Horizons, and all who sail in her. Here’s looking forward to another year of great fiction, great criticism, great SFF.

Afterwards: thinking about the Sharke

It always happens to me: just when I think I’m done with science fiction, I find myself falling in love with it all over again.

This recurrence of enthusiasm is often the by-product of annoyance at the continuing snobbism shown by the literary world towards SF – that radio interview of Zachary Mason’s was a classic case in point – but there’s more to it than that. I look at the deluge of ‘astonishing’ literary debuts and I feel fatigued. Fatigued by so much competent averageness. I find myself thinking that no matter how short of its own ambitions SF falls sometimes, at least it’s trying to do something.

On one of my Fantasticon panels in Copenhagen I found myself talking once more about ‘the conversation’ and how important it was to me when I first became involved with the SF community. Even as I was speaking I realised how much this is still the case. I’m damned if I’ll concede the field, even when the field and I seem to be going about our business from opposite standpoints. At its core, science fiction is a political literature, a literature that engages with the world in a way that seems not just apposite but necessary, especially now. How many more luminous coming of age novels does the world really need?

I returned from Copenhagen to find three insightful, reflective, hopeful posts from fellow Sharkes Megan AM, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid, looking back on our project as it unfolded and expressing some possible new directions for its future. It was great to read their thoughts, and the comments on them, not least because they gave me a sense of how much we accomplished in generating conversation, not only around the Clarke Award but around SF in general, which of course was the reason we decided to convene the shadow jury in the first place.

I do my best not to be irritable as a person, but I know I can be irritable intellectually. I get cross easily. I have snap reactions. I demand things to be better without examining my own assumptions and prejudices in sufficient depth. Megan insists that the Sharke did not fatigue her, that she was SFatigued even before we started. If anything, I was the opposite: I went into the Sharke determined that we could change things, that we could identify what was ‘wrong’ with the direction the Clarke seemed to be taking and suggest an alternative. I ended up feeling demoralised, mainly I suspect because of the sheer volume of words and self-motivation necessary to guide the project through to its conclusion, which is fair enough. At the same time though I felt profoundly irritated by much of what I’d read, irritated by a science fiction that seemed on the point of running aground in shallow waters and with no hope of refloating itself. I was, in a very real sense, exhausted.

It is surprising what a couple of weeks’ rest and a temporary change of scene can do to get the heart and mind and brain back into gear. In Copenhagen, I found myself wondering if I’d been playing devil’s advocate against myself, waving a flag for something I didn’t actually believe in, much less want. A science fiction that reads like Jonathan Franzen? Regardless of whether such an outcome might be possible, is it even desirable? I cannot count the number of times I have found myself feeling disappointed – irritated – with mainstream literary works that employ science fictional conceits as an exotic backdrop for more conventional concerns. Such a use hints at closure, at circumscribing an idea, at presenting it in terms that will further enhance an already established concept. Such a use would seem to be the opposite of science fiction.

And yet it would be equally disingenuous to suggest that ‘real’ science fiction is the sole prerogative of works published as genre, and by genre imprints. A derivative genre work – a work that lazily recycles old tropes, a work that uses the trappings of science fiction to perpetuate a retrograde worldview – is as unsatisfying in science fictional terms as a bland mainstream offering such as Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles or Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. On the other hand, we see so-called literary works by writers such as Michel Faber, Nicola Barker, Joanna Kavenna and Dexter Palmer coming at science fiction head on and with a sense of excitement. Works such as these, replete with living ideas, should be considered equally as SF and without the ‘literary’ tag clipped on as some sort of disclaimer. If I have come to any conclusions during the time since we hung up our Sharke fins, it is that the ‘literary SF’ label should be dispensed with entirely. It is divisive, ultimately meaningless and unfit for purpose. It seems to me that what distinguishes science fiction from other modes of literature is its vitality, the sense it gives of being in the presence of an idea that is still evolving. If such vitality is present, then whether a work is published by Voyager or by Vintage is of little account. That years of discussion and controversy have been predicated on industry window dressing seems ludicrous and destructive, just a backhand way of perpetrating stereotypes on both sides of the publishing divide. Such arbitrary distinctions hamper the conversation and I intend to avoid them entirely from now on.

The Sharke has changed me in multiple ways, most obviously as a critic and as a reader. Looking back on the self that first conceived the project, I now believe I had become as entrenched within a certain comfort zone as any hardcore space opera fan, accustomed to looking in the same places for what I deemed noteworthy, places that accorded comfortably with my expectations, which in their turn had mostly to do with style. How much more interesting to strip away one’s assumptions and see what happens. To come at things from a different angle. To stop feeling the need to fight a particular corner in terms of what is good and what is best. Personally, I’m still not a fan of The Underground Railroad. To my mind, it is possibly the most ‘commercial’ novel on the Clarke Award shortlist and its bland surface texture renders it ultimately forgettable to me as a reading experience. I find some of the sentence structure, not to mention the use of science fiction in Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me to be far more interesting. I have found the abstruse weirdness and raw vitality of Ninefox Gambit hanging around in my mind far longer than, for example, the sensitively rendered but ultimately predictable dystopian role-playing of Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came. Viewed from this new perspective, the landscape of science fiction looks much more exciting to me than it did even before the Sharke was launched.

Part of the problem I have found not just in reviewing science fiction but in thinking about it too is the pressure to come to a conclusion, to pick a side. The journalistic format one so easily falls into for so much reviewing favours tidy summaries and directed arguments, the need to dismiss or approve a work, style, or line of reasoning quickly and concisely and then move on. To paraphrase W. H. Davies, there seems to be less and less time for literary critics to stop and stare, to present their thoughts as a series of questions rather than striving towards an answer that is ultimately trite. This is a matter I would like to address in future by steering myself towards a different kind of criticism, a criticism that is thoughtfully expansive rather than reductive.

I would also like to address the issue of diversity. I think the best thing I can do here is to refer you back to Gareth Beniston’s Clarke Thoughts post, in which he raises the question of continuing systemic bias within publishing and its inevitable knock-on effect on literary awards, including the Clarke. Gareth’s guest essay was one of the Sharke’s most commented-upon posts – a positive development indeed in that it shows how people are finally becoming engaged with this discussion, negative in that no constructive conclusions were reached, in spite of a general agreement that ‘something must be done’.

Our current situation is a disaster. Only last week another article was published, reporting the findings of a recent survey: that the British publishing industry remains 90% white. It is imperative that this state of affairs is made to change, not just on account of those talented individuals whose pathway into the creative industries is effectively being blocked, but especially because of what it says about where we are as a society. British cultural institutions are atrophying under the weight of reaction. British political culture is more toxic than it was in the days of Enoch Powell. We have somehow created a climate where thousands of people think Jacob Rees Mogg would be a reasonable choice to be our next prime minister, for fuck’s sake. We are a dead country walking. This is urgent, and it is urgent now. After a considerable amount of post-Sharke soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that positive action is more important than obeisance to a brand of objectivity that is specious in any case. At the very least, the Clarke Award should begin admitting entry to works not published in the UK. The current rules have meant that some of the most interesting and important SF by minority and marginalised writers has been ineligible for the Clarke because it happens to have been published in the USA. An award for best science fiction novel that does not take account of the work published by Aqueduct Press, just for example, is setting itself up to be parochial and restrictive. Most works by established writers are published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in any case – with the result that the only works being blocked are precisely those works that we need to see more of.

We also urgently need our Clarke jurors to be drawn from a larger, more diverse pool. And as for Niall Harrison’s suggestion in the comments on Gareth’s piece that we conduct a one-year experiment in which only novels by black and ethnic minority writers would be eligible? Why on Earth not? Such an experiment would, as Niall suggests, be bound to draw attention to publishing disparities. It would also give rise to one hell of an interesting discussion. We desperately need change. At some point, someone needs to take the lead in promoting change. What better institution than the Clarke?

Much of what I’m saying here is simply a longer reflection on that Mackenzie Wark essay I mentioned in an earlier post, a more sustained amen. I am so horrified by the current political impasse that I cannot, at the present moment, see how the bourgeois novel, as Wark described it, can be anything other than an obsolescence, an inappropriate reassurance, if not a defence than a passive reflection of the status quo.

I think I can also safely say that I’m coming out of my Sharke-fatigue. I find myself feeling compelled to read science fiction again. For better or worse, it seems I’m stuck with it. I’m going in.

Wonderful Copenhagen

We’ve just returned from Copenhagen, and a highly enjoyable weekend as the guests of Fantasticon 2017. It was a great pleasure to meet and talk to Danish writers, translators, scholars and fans of SFF. The weekend will be remembered as the weekend I finally got around to reading Rogue Moon (more on that later, I hope) and also as the weekend I began to regain my appetite – understandably in abeyance at the end of a pretty intensive period of reading and reviewing – for SF discussion.

In particular I would like to thank:

Lars Ahn Pedersen, for inviting us to be guests in the first place and for his exemplary organisational skills.

Jan Pedersen, Henrik Harksen and Dennis Rosenfeld, whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of their subject matter made our discussions of H. P. Lovecraft two of my most enjoyable panel experiences to date.

Niels Dalgaard, for his work in translating a generous handful of my short stories for the collection published to coincide with this year’s Fantasticon.

Flemming Rasch, for very generously gifting us each a space pen, an item of stationery that has already proved miraculously efficient in taking notes at difficult angles – I never knew how much I needed one of these until I had one!

And last but by no means least, the members of the manned space flight panel, who unwittingly and entirely unexpectedly might have given me the key inspiration for my next novel.

We had a great time, in a beautiful city. Thanks to everyone involved!

Agents of Dreamland

“The best foreshadowing never seems like foreshadowing.”

Finally I’ve been able to catch up with Caitlin R. Kiernan’s new novella and it has left me wanting more in all the right ways. Kiernan’s writing never fails to jolt me with its splendour, reminding me in just a few paragraphs of everything I love and feel drawn to in horror literature and hungry to read and write more of it.

This little book is replete with Kiernan’s recurring themes – cosmic horror and personal regret, enlightenment (never in a good way) and alienation, the inescapable sense of a greater, more desperate truth closing in – as well as quotes from Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and Lovecraftian references that will delight all followers of the Mythos.

Indeed, my only reservation about Agents of Dreamland lies in wondering if it would have been better – more terrifying, even – if Kiernan had dispensed with the explicitly Lovecraftian armature that supports this story and had it play out independently of the Mythos, more in the manner of The Dry Salvages. The themes and implications speak for themselves, and it isn’t as if the Mythos is, well, true

It’s probably just me. I’ve never been all that into shared-world scenarios. In any case, don’t let this small caveat put you off the novella, which is as ambitious, ambiguous, and seeping with dread as all great horror fiction should be. I love Kiernan’s sense of place, her relaxed, vernacular dialogue just as much. I can’t wait for the upcoming release of her expanded edition of Black Helicopters, as well as her new, as-yet untitled novella set in the same universe.

I’ve been working well on new stuff today, and I feel certain that being immersed in Dreamland has had something to do with that.

Obsolescence

This morning I happened upon this superbly articulate and, I would say, essential essay by McKenzie Wark, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Quite apart from the admiration one would obviously feel for the way it is written – such an engaging and dynamic arrangement of arguments – it seems to me that this piece presents one of the most cogent defences of science fiction I have ever read. Wark shows SF to be not just radical but necessary as a means of exposing the derangement of our present age:

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.”

The essay seemed to come as an answer to the question of why I feel an almost inevitable unease – discomfort even – in the presence of a novel like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, one of the most perfectly realised studies of interiority I have encountered recently with not a word out of place or superfluous, and yet there is that dis-ease, all the same. It seemed to chime with feelings of sadness at the death of Brian Aldiss, one of our most insatiably curious writers, and devoted to SF almost at his own peril. Along with others whose comments I’ve seen in response to the various online memorials, I could come close to arguing that my intellectual life was kick-started by Aldiss’s great Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and the vision it presented of SF as a distinct literature, a movement almost.

I feel fortunate in reading Wark’s essay precisely now, as I contemplate new work, new directions. I have a pile of notes already for the next book and I think it would be fair to say that I’m excited about it but even more so after today, with all these new thoughts about what the novel is for still in my mind.

Most of the book industry conspires against such a vision but that only makes it more exciting, more necessary.

*

Currently reading: Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, which is spare, chilling and excellent. It is also on the shortlist for the Gordon Burn Prize, which by accident rather than design I happen to have read most of, as well as several other titles that appeared on the longlist.  I’ve been so impressed by the Gordon Burn Prize – its ethos, its juries’ choices – that I am seriously considering reading and reviewing the full longlist next year, as a planned reading project. As for this year, I was lucky enough to hear Denise Mina talk about The Long Drop at the recent Bute Noir crime writing festival right here in Rothesay, an event that has proved to be one of the highlights of our first summer here, a miniature Bloody Scotland with every seat taken and everyone already looking forward to more of the same in 2018.

“In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.”

*

The summer is well advanced, but still so full of things. Chris and I will be guests of Fantasticon, in Copenhagen, at the end of this month. At the end of next month there’s FantasyCon, and after that I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency, and hopefully writing. The new book will be set in Rothesay, or rather versions of Rothesay, with the novel that brought me on my first visit here more than a decade ago now – Andrew O’Hagan’s ravishing Personality – standing over me like an admonishment…

Eibonvale chapbooks alert – call for submissions!

I had dinner with David Rix of Eibonvale Press when I was in London last week, and we spent a pleasurable couple of hours catching up on book news. David has been busy hatching plans as usual, and I was particularly delighted to hear that he’s going to be publishing a new line of chapbooks, and that he’s opening for submissions right now.

There’s something beautifully satisfying about a chapbook. Their small size makes them easily portable, their generally lower cover price means you can take a chance on a writer you might not have come across before, and their restricted word count makes for an intense and satisfying reading experience, a total immersion in story that isn’t always possible with a novel, where you usually have to keep breaking off to do other things. A chapbook can be consumed in a single sitting, and can often resonate more powerfully as a result.

Possibly my most memorable chapbook reads of recent years have been Alison Moore’s ‘The Harvestman’, and M. John Harrison’s ‘Getting Out of There’, both from Nightjar Press, who have been putting out wonderful chapbooks for a number of years now.

With the new Eibonvale chapbooks line, David is particularly keen to hear from new voices, so anyone who’s been holding back a story, not quite sure where to send it, this could be the ideal place! David loves dark, strange fiction with an experimental edge, the weirder the better. He’s looking for individual, standalone stories of around 10,000 words in length, so plenty of room for things to get interesting.

And as it has suddenly occurred to me that I have never yet seen my work published in chapbook form, I might very well be submitting something myself…

You can read the Eibonvale press release here, and download the full submissions guidelines, including information on format and payment, here.

I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of stories this call brings forth!