New Fears

Pleased to announce that my story ‘Four Abstracts’ will feature in an all-new horror anthology from Titan, New Fears. Edited by Mark Morris, New Fears is scheduled for publication this September and here’s the full Table of Contents:

THE BOGGLE HOLE – ALISON LITTLEWOOD

SHEPHERDS’ BUSINESS – STEPHEN GALLAGHER

NO GOOD DEED – ANGELA SLATTER

THE FAMILY CAR – BRADY GOLDEN

FOUR ABSTRACTS – NINA ALLAN

SHELTERED IN PLACE – BRIAN KEENE

THE FOLD IN THE HEART – CHAZ BRENCHLEY

DEPARTURES – A.K. BENEDICT

THE SALTER COLLECTION – BRIAN LILLIE

SPEAKING STILL – RAMSEY CAMPBELL

THE EYES ARE WHITE AND QUIET – CAROLE JOHNSTONE

THE EMBARRASSMENT OF DEAD GRANDMOTHERS – SARAH LOTZ

EUMENIDES (THE BENEVOLENT LADIES) – ADAM NEVILL

ROUNDABOUT – MURIEL GRAY

THE HOUSE OF THE HEAD – JOSH MALERMAN

SUCCULENTS – CONRAD WILLIAMS

DOLLIES – KATHRYN PTACEK

THE ABDUCTION DOOR – CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN

THE SWAN DIVE – STEPHEN LAWS

‘Four Abstracts’ is a follow-up of sorts to my 2007 novella A Thread of Truth, and yes, spiders do feature. It’s set mainly in Hartland, a village in West Devon that I knew I wanted to write about from the moment I first visited it. I’m very fond of these characters, who may yet have more stories to tell…

A toe in the water

I went into Glasgow yesterday, to attend a couple of screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival. I was particularly keen to check out Olivier Assayas’s new movie Personal Shopper, and after having (finally) caught up with Local Hero last summer, the opportunity to see Bill Forsyth’s rarely screened adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping seemed too good to miss.

In the event, the Forsyth proved the superior movie by far – emotionally rich and beautifully photographed, it put the curiously affectless, all-surface Personal Shopper in the shade. After the Festen-tense drama of Summer Hours and the intense, dramatic weirdness of The Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s handling of the ghost story elements in his new venture seemed altogether too conventional, too trope-y, while the ‘sad lives of the super-rich’ plot strand that didn’t bother me overmuch in Clouds (because the emotional drama felt so convincing) here played out like a much less successful recapitulation of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (which did at least demonstrate a modicum of irony). The Neon Demon, only less in your face and therefore less gripping.

The weirdest thing for me about Personal Shopper was the music that accompanied the closing credits: Anna von Hausswolff’s ‘Track of Time’, the very same track that, with its accompanying video, directly inspired a recently completed short story of mine. More on that, hopefully, soon.

As much as the movies themselves, the best thing about yesterday was being in the Glasgow Film Theatre, the number one indie film venue in the country and a joyous early discovery for me in our new life here in Scotland. Taking the ferry and the train from Rothesay to Glasgow is made special precisely through being not special: this is a normal, regular commuter route, a well-worn connection between the island and the mainland that has existed and thrived for several centuries. Our two regular ferries – the MV Bute and the MV Argyle – were built in Gdansk and sail roughly once an hour in both directions. They are a constant and regular presence in our life here and one can’t help but feel a strong and immediate affection for them. 

Before moving here I’d not been in Glasgow for more than ten years and so had trace memories only. Since coming to live on Bute, I’ve been into the city twice already and the connection feels immediate and strong. What I place. There is enough here – of history, of psychogeography, of culture – to fill several lifetimes. I am already making notes on all manner of subjects – even notes about notes I need to make notes about. If there has been anything lacking in our time here so far it is simply hours in the day. There is so much to think about, to discover.

One of the (many) upsides to being involved with the shadow Clarke jury is that it’s the first thing that has made me feel normal – i.e like the world around me is something I recognise – since June 24th last year. While the planet’s most obnoxious internet troll continues to host his clowns’ tea party in the White House, and while the Westminster government continues hell bent on its mission to transport Britain back to the 1950s (a mission every politically literate person in the country – and a good few out of it – knows is batshit crazy), we can at least still read, we can still write, we can still cogently criticise what we read and write. (Abigail Nussbaum’s similar thoughts on nominating for the Hugos are well worth reading.)

We’ll start seeing the first of the shadow jury’s personal shortlist posts going live this week. And while you’re waiting to find out what we’ve picked, why not have a stab at guessing the official @ClarkeAward shortlist?  The award’s director, Tom Hunter, has come up with a competition: guess the official shortlist in its entirety and win copies of all six books! The contest is made all the more tantalising by the fact that to date, no one has ever managed to do this. So try and be the first. The competition is being hosted along with the shadow jury at the ARU Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Just post your guesses in the comments to enter.

 

Ruthless Shadow

Here’s Jonathan McCalmont, on the state we’re in and his reasons for agreeing to be a part of the #shadowclarke jury:

“To be blunt, I don’t think that genre fandom survived the culture wars of 2015 and I think genre culture has now entered a post-apocalyptic phase in which a few institutional citadels manage to keep the lights on while the rest of the field is little more than a blasted wasteland full of isolated, lonely people. One reason why I agreed to get involved with shadowing the Clarke Award is that I see the Shadow Clarke as an opportunity to build something new that re-introduces the idea that engaging with literary science fiction can be about more than denouncing your former friends and providing under-supported writers with free PR.”

And in this spirit, I’m happy to report that members of the shadow jury are busily engaged in salvaging viable resources from that blasted wasteland, endlessly scavenging the Clarke submissions list in search of the ideal shortlist. Expect to see some of our thoughts on this go live in the coming week.

Paper Knife – or should that be Mack the Knife?

“But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.”

As we await the unveiling of this year’s Clarke submissions list, here’s a great post from another of our #shadowclarke jurors, Maureen Kincaid Speller, on the problems of juried awards and the value of transparency. Her words here about using the shadow Clarke as an opportunity to test everything she’s ever thought or felt about science fiction feel particularly apposite to me, and indeed form one of the main reasons I wanted to set this project in motion in the first place. Maureen also provides a useful list of links to all the #sharke posts so far. Thanks, Maureen!

Eve’s Alexandria

One of our shadow jurors, Victoria Hoyle, offers a wonderfully cogent and lively summing-up of the process and rationale behind our #shadowclarke jury over at her Booktube channel. Thanks, Victoria!

 

Announcing the Shadow Clarke

We had some exciting news yesterday from Clarke Award director Tom Hunter, who unveiled the official timeline for this year’s award:

“Key dates for the Clarke Award 2017: Submission List: 14 Feb, Shortlist: 3 May, Winner: 27 Jul + Sir Arthur’s Birthday: 16 Dec.”

Not long to go then before we know for sure which books are in contention! Tying in closely with that announcement, I’m thrilled to bring you a bit of news of my own, something I’ve had simmering away on the back burner for some months and can now make public: this year, a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury. We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

To say I’m excited about this project would be putting it mildly. To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be, and it was with this in mind that the idea of setting up a shadow jury first came to me. The idea is not to ‘challenge’ the official jury in any way, but to bring more to the party: more readers, more critics, more books, more discussion. And the beauty of a shadow jury is that everything can be out in the open. Over the following weeks and months, you’ll be able to read along with us, find out which books we love and which we’re not so wild about – and more to the point, why. I’d bet there isn’t a single Clarke-watcher out there who hasn’t at some point found themselves completely at a loss over some jury decision or other. When it comes to the shadow jury, our whole process will be transparent. Argue back if you like – engaged discussion is an activity we’ll be actively encouraging.

We have some wonderful people making up our shadow Clarke jury in its inaugural year  – writers and critics who have already given substantial amounts of time, attention and enthusiasm in helping to get this project off the ground. I’m proud to introduce to you the band of soothsayers, poets and reprobates who, in addition to myself, constitute the members of our shadow jury:

MEGAN A.M has always loved reading science fiction, and started her blog with the aim of discovering and writing about more of the science fiction she loved. She began following the Clarke Award several years ago, and blogged the whole of the shortlist for the first time in 2016. She blogs at From Couch to Moon.

VAJRA CHANDRASEKERA is a writer of speculative fiction from Columbo, Sri Lanka. His short fiction has been published in a wide variety of venues including Lightspeed, Lackington’s, Nightmare Magazine and the Apex Book of World SF. He is a fiction editor and reviewer for Strange Horizons and posts essays on aspects of science fiction and genre at his personal blog.

DAVID HEBBLETHWAITE has been following science fiction and writing about books for many years. He has twice served on the shadow jury for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and his reviews and commentary have appeared in both print venues and online spaces, including Strange Horizons, The Bookseller, Fiction Uncovered, and Vector. His much admired personal blog is David’s Book World.

VICTORIA HOYLE is a PhD student and archivist at York City Archive. She reads widely across all genres and likes to record her ideas and impressions at Eve’s Alexandria. She has published reviews at various venues, including Strange Horizons, and has a sparkly new Booktube channel here.

NICK HUBBLE is reader in English Literature at Brunel University, London. He has written extensively on speculative fiction across a variety of venues and has been following the Clarke Award for fifteen years.

PAUL KINCAID is a writer and critic and previous winner of the BSFA Award (non-fiction). A stalwart of the British science fiction community, Paul was a founding member of the committee that set up the Clarke Award, as well as serving as award chairman from 1996 – 2006. His essays on science fiction are collected in the volumes What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008), and Call and Response (2014). His monograph on the fiction of Iain Banks will shortly be published by Illinois University Press as part of their Modern Masters of SF series. He blogs at Through the Dark Labyrinth.

MAUREEN KINCAID SPELLER is a writer and critic and lecturer in science fiction literature. She is reviews editor for Strange Horizons, and was a judge for the Clarke Award in 1993 and 1994. Her series of blog essays on the 2012 Clarke and BSFA Awards, The Shortlist Project, attracted wide notice and was nominated for the BSFA Award. She blogs at Paper Knife.

JONATHAN McCALMONT is a freelance writer, critic and film scout. His reviews of films, books, comics and games have been published across a wide variety of print and online venues. He writes a bi-monthly column for Interzone magazine, Future Interrupted, and blogs at Ruthless Culture.

Many of them are seasoned Clarke-watchers, others are newer to the game, but all are purveyors of excellent and incisive criticism, each with their own particular approach to science fiction, their own personal history within and in relation to the genre. It’s fantastic to have such talent on board, and I for one can’t wait to hear what they have to say about this year’s submissions.

Last, but by no means least, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to Helen Marshall and her team at Anglia Ruskin University, who have offered us their brand new Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy website as the ‘hub’ for the project. Although most jury members will be posting material at their own blogs, websites and on social media, the ARU SFF Centre will be your one-stop shop for all things shadow-Clarke-related – you can read it there first. ARU are also planning to hold student discussion groups around the Clarke Award throughout the award’s season, making more readers and critics aware of the award and bringing more commentary and contribution to the table. Which is all fantastic news.

If you head over to the ARU website now, you’ll find the first shadow Clarke posts have already gone live:

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: a note from the Centre by Helen Marshall

ANNOUNCING THE SHADOW CLARKE 2017: an introduction and a manifesto by Nina Allan

INTRODUCTION from The Arthur C. Clarke Award: a critical anthology by Paul Kincaid

You can follow the Centre for SFF on Twitter at @csffanglia, and if you want to talk about the project on social media please feel welcome to use the hashtag #shadowclarke.

May the games commence!

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

I have a complicated relationship with immersive fiction. As a reader, it’s the ultimate pleasure: to be so thoroughly absorbed in a world, a landscape, a cast of characters that the world you happen to be living in recedes for a while, that there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than reading that book, that returning to it after each forced separation is like hurrying down cellar steps into a lighted, secret domain of intrigue and wonder.

The greater part of what you stand to lose in becoming a writer is the natural, instinctive access to that domain that you enjoy as a reader. You can go there all right, but you run the risk of not giving a shit. Of shrugging your shoulders and sneering ‘yeah, and?’ Of so consistently, so predictably demanding the text teach you something that you forget the joy of story altogether.

I remember when I left home to go to university, being worried about not having access to a piano. I was never what you’d call a real pianist, but my daily contact with the instrument, with my dog-eared collection of beloved sheet music, with the practice of playing, was of such importance to me that I could not imagine a life in which that contact did not form a key component and the very idea of losing it terrified me.

As it happened, there was no problem getting access to pianos at university and I was able to book practice sessions – at the music department in Upper Redlands Road, Reading, then at lovely Knightley, Exeter University’s music department (now closed – another crime against higher learning in Britain) – whenever I wanted. It was only later, when I moved out of higher education and into accommodation where housing a piano would have been difficult to impossible, that the instrument and I began to lose our connection. In sailing so far out into another life, I watched the lights of the old one recede and then disappear. I don’t play now, because I haven’t played in so long I would be appalled to discover the full extent of what I have lost. And so it goes.

For a writer, losing that instinctive and unthinking connection to story is a little bit the same.

I don’t read immersive fantasy because a lot of it is ‘just’ story: there is little for me to learn from it except what happens next. If I’m honest, it has most likely been my too-ready adherence to this prejudice that has formed the core reason it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Steph Swainston’s Castle books. I’ve been aware of the series since the publication of this first instalment back in 2004, even to the extent of knowing broadly who the characters are and what happens to them, but I somehow always managed to put off the actual reading ‘until later’. I finally picked up The Year of Our War just before we moved house, firstly in an attempt to make good that gap, and secondly because after a seven-year hiatus a new Castle book was finally published in December of last year. I felt curious about Fair Rebel as a possible Clarke contender and thought I’d better read at least one of the earlier Castle novels as preparation.

The bare bones of its synopsis might cast The Year of Our War as standard fantasy:  the allied kingdoms of the Fourlands are under attack from ferociously invasive giant insects. The people’s only hope are the Eszai, a higher caste of immortals of immense and specific talent, sequestered at the Castle and ruled over by the Emperor, who is himself immortal and not always consistent in his judgements. But to think of Swainston’s novel in such basic terms would be a little like dismissing War and Peace as a family saga.

The Year of Our War was a joy to read. Not just for its story, which I found thoroughly engrossing in a way I’ve not experienced much recently, but for its clear and striking commitment to itself, its willingness to be not ‘quirky’ (a horrid word, which suggests slightness, lack of intellectual depth) but odd. There is coherent worldbuilding here – hardcore fantasy fans need not be disappointed – but the novel constantly subverts itself, shifting its emphasis as the author’s vision demands, pulling the rug from beneath the feet of cosy expectations. There is an acerbic, decidedly offbeat humour, a preoccupation with metaphysics, with contemporary politics, with the off-kilter inner workings of intelligent minds. Swainston’s use of language is deft, imaginative, colourful and so intrinsically fit for purpose you barely stop to notice how breathtakingly lovely it can be and often is.

This is a writer so thoroughly in command of her materials that she knows exactly how and when to break the rules, which is often and inventively and with evident delight.

There is something else, too, a rawness of purpose, an unvarnished quality that is seriously on the endangered list in the increasingly homogenised, sanded-down SFF published by genre imprints. The narrative darts this way and that, veering off at a tangent here, chasing off down a side street there, picking up the thread of the story only fifty pages later. These are the supposedly dodgy habits, the intrusive mannerisms, the blurring of the narrative line that many agents and editors insist are deal-breakers. Gods be thanked then they survive intact here. The Year of Our War is fiction that is meant and felt, fiction that is entirely the product of the author’s vision. Fantasy fction as original as this – as wayward as this – is rarer than you think. While reading The Year of Our War I frequently found myself wondering if any editor working for one of the larger imprints today would have allowed the manuscript to get anywhere near the copy-editing stage without having its wings clipped.

I experienced also a mounting sense of disbelief, that Steph Swainston and the Castle series are not better known. Swainston began publishing just as China Mieville was gaining ascendancy as the premier writer of the so-called ‘New Weird’. There was then and still is now plenty of discussion around whether the New Weird was really a thing, or simply a marketing tactic. Personally I tend towards the belief that it was a thing, and that as a means of talking about the burst of metafictional and conceptual innovation that irrupted into the genre, the novels and writers that defined the field in the early years of the new century, the New Weird was as good a label as any. But could it be that the attention given to Mieville, the overweening emphasis on Mieville sucked the oxygen out of the nascent movement and stopped it actually going anywhere? That less publicised writers like Swainston were sidelined simply by not being China, then found themselves further disadvantaged as Mieville himself became less visible and the excitement around the New Weird began to diminish?

None of this is Mieville’s fault, of course, and difficult to prove either way. What is plainly evident though is that Steph Swainston is one of the most creatively and intellectually ambitious writers working in genre, and – after being faced with this heartbreaking article in 2011 – we should feel thankful and delighted that she is writing again. Not that the industry seems to have learned much in the interim: Fair Rebel was published at the dog-end of the year to little fanfare.  And for the record, the whole guff about Swainston’s earlier Castle novels being rejected by awards juries as ‘not science fiction’ is plainly idiotic: if Perdido Street Station could be shortlisted for (and go on to win) the Clarke, why not The Year of Our War? And when are those same juries going to admit that novels featuring wars with giant insects are no less echt SF than novels about generation starships? If it’s a question of which is more likely to happen in a foreseeable future, I know which of the two I’d place my bet on, at any rate…

(You can read a fascinating interview with Steph Swainston about the world of Castle here.)

A new year and a new home(land)

The turning of the year is like the turning of the tide: inevitable yet strange. Rebecca Solnit, writing in the London Review of Books, provides a deft and forthright analysis of recent events:

“Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.”

Attempting to summarise Solnit’s essay in a single quote does her work a disservice. It’s so good, such a coherent argument, a talking-late-into-the-night kind of piece that leaves me angry and grief-stricken all over again at what has happened, whilst at the same time feeling infinitely grateful to Solnit for writing this down, for finding the words we so sorely need. I felt a similar reaction when I read a piece by Richard Lea in the Guardian a couple of days ago, about writers from the US and the UK who have found stronger recognition for their books in Europe than in their home nations:

For translator Frank Wynne, [Laura Kasischke’s] suggestion that continental readers are more tolerant of unappealing characters seems all too plausible: “Literature does not exist to be heartwarming – even Watership Down is filled with violence and savagery – yet there is a large readership that longs for the familiar and the reassuring, and I think perhaps that is more in evidence among British and especially American readers.”

Wynne says that the vibrancy and diversity of literary culture in France and Spain is still protected by regulations preventing retailers from selling popular books at large discounts, restrictions that disappeared in the UK during the 1990s, adding: “Literature is a sufficiently major part of French culture that there are still radio and television programmes discussing books, and many authors are also major public figures, something that would be all but unthinkable in the UK or the US.” 

The piece is fascinating (and I can already vouch for aspects of it personally) but it also makes me want to weep, for the vile shortsightedness of a political culture that seeks to drive us away from Europe and into the arms of the US, a direction of travel precipitated by Thatcher but accelerated by Blair and all driven by a flag-waving, proud philistinism that is always going to value the politics of the so-called ‘free’ market over philosophy, sustainability, indigenous culture, creative endeavour and abstract thought, all the social and artistic values inherent in being human.

I think maybe we have to stop reacting and start resisting. There is no way of reacting to Trump’s joke-travesty of a press conference yesterday after all except to sit there, mind reeling with disbelief as yet more levels of total incompetence are revealed (there are more??) and thinking what an absolute dick. Yet even small acts of resistance are valuable and important. Taken together they create revolutions. In precisely this vein, I was delighted to see the recently announced longlist for Neil Griffiths’s Republic of Consciousness prize, a new award set up to draw attention to ‘brave, bold and brilliant’ works published by independent presses, the kind of experimental, unclassifiable writing that is readily appreciated in Europe but often struggles to find representation with the ‘big four’ publishers in the UK and US. That the Republic of Consciousness prize has been set up largely through crowdfunding is simultaneously an indication of how edged out such writing has become and the continuing hunger for it, for writing that strives to be itself and not just product. To be something more than the glib smoothness that passes for excellence so much of the time.

I also feel a raw, shivery delight at the idea of a fantasy trilogy by Marlon James. I’ve always maintained (in the teeth of strong opposition from certain quarters) that there’s nothing wrong with big-book fantasy per se. Big-book fantasy, with its immersive allure, can and should have the potential to be properly magical – it’s the endless recycling of stock tropes, coupled with adequate-to-bad writing that’s the problem. I’ve long entertained a mad, private dream of if-Hilary-Mantel-wrote-Game-of-Thrones, but Marlon James’s recently announced Dark Star trilogy will do me just fine, thanks. It’s almost enough to make me want to drop everything I’m doing and begin writing a trilogy of my own…

Dropping everything isn’t an option right at this moment, however, because we happen to be engaged in something of an epic struggle already. This one involves packing boxes of books (again) and is set to achieve its conclusion early next week. We are moving house, and the move is a big one, five hundred miles north, to be precise, to Scotland, to an island in the Firth of Clyde. Not just a new home, but a new country. If anyone had told us at the start of 2016 that this would be happening, we would not have believed them. Then we travelled north and found ourselves falling in love with a place, an ethos, a mindset. Then Brexit happened. Then we began to think seriously about what we both saw happening on both a personal and a political level over the next five years, the next twenty. We asked each other what we wanted to do and when we should do it and we both agreed it should be Scotland and it should be now.

It’s incredibly exciting. On a purely practical level, this is the right move for us (I’ll have access to proper public transport again, Chris will have an airport closer to hand). As a writer, it feels as if a dozen doors have opened simultaneously in front of me. There is also no denying the satisfaction we feel at being in a position to offer this most personal and concrete of protests against the Brexit vote. The feeling may be selfish, and ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it exists and it is real.

I always find in this time of year a kind of nullity, a span of greyish dog days, neither one thing nor the other and with the only consolation to be found in starting work on something new. This turn-of-the-year has the same blustery greyness, the same leaching out of colour, the same uncertainty, but it feels different, nonetheless, a genuine transition. The blog will most likely lie quiet for a few weeks while we get ourselves settled, but I am itching to get back to work, and that includes this journal. Small acts of resistance, among which books, and the talk of books, are the greatest of all.

Best of the Year 2016 Edition

The end of the year is an odd moment at the best of times, bringing with it that sense of insecurity and flux that comes with darker days and longer evenings, with the idea of passing from one delineated period of time into another. Normally it feels helpful to collate a roll-call of the best books of the year, a kind of time capsule of literature that might define the year in some way, whilst simultaneously becoming a memento of it.

2016 feels different though. The Brexit vote at the end of June served to snap the year in two, creating a decisive break with the first half and forming for many a permanent dividing line between the country, the political culture, the beliefs and systems and values they grew up with and thought they understood and the retrograde, embittered, still-colonialist-minded, defensive surveillance state we appear to be living in now. Naively perhaps, I always believed in England and the English as a haven of pragmatism. Not the most cultured nation in the world, as Isiah Berlin once said, but among the most civilised. Above all, a bastion of eccentric, streetwise, compassionate common sense.

I don’t know any more. Truly, I don’t. Among my many core reasons for voting to remain in the European Union was a lack of trust in our own irresponsibly short-termist political culture – both Labour and Tory – in its desire or ability to properly uphold and administer a sustainable and just system of human rights legislation, environmental protection, social welfare, working conditions, energy regulation, protection and help for immigrants and asylum seekers. The building blocks of a sustainable future, in other words, and the founding principles on which the very idea of a European Union is based.

None of these matters was significantly discussed by any of the key players during the run-up to the referendum. The paucity of properly engaged debate and the poisonous, hateful mendacity of what did occur are still profound griefs to me, scars on our body politic I still find it difficult to speak about without tears or rage. I hold the passive-aggressive abdication of responsibility displayed by the leader of our so-called opposition almost equally in contempt. Holding the moral high ground becomes an act of meaningless arrogance when what you’ve actually done is doom the electorate to a decade (and probably more) of Tory rule and with it the possible dismantling of whatever fragments of social infrastructure we still have left.

To have these nightmare scenarios repeated, almost beat for beat, less than six months later in the US Presidential election was an experience I might have described as surreal, in the true and original sense of the word, were the moment not so abjectly serious, so morally grievous, so actively terrifying to so many, such an incipient and ongoing threat to everyone that breathes, even those that don’t realise it yet.

I have found it difficult, these past months, to write about literature, about science fiction, even as I continue to passionately care about it. Neither have I wanted to pointlessly sound off about politics, to repeat the same things others are saying but less articulately, to dive full tilt into a situation we do not – cannot – properly understand yet. I do not personally remember the political atmosphere of this country being so charged since the fall of Thatcher – and that felt, or at least it did for a while, like a good time, a time in which positive change was not simply possible but actively on its way. These past six months have been of another order entirely, and my creative and intellectual energies have been directed towards trying to understand how I, as a writer of fiction, might and should respond. Whether work already in progress before these happenings is still relevant, still finishable, and if not, where to turn instead. That I have not worked out the answers to these questions anywhere near fully should go without saying.

Having said all that, it would feel completely wrong of me not to highlight some of the fine writing I’ve encountered this year, a year in which, hopefully, we have begun to remember the very real importance and value of writing not just as a weapon but as an act of resistance.

My favourite novels of this year have been Little Sister Death by William Gay, The Life Writer by David Constantine, The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang and Infinite Ground by Martin McInnes. It can hardly be called a coincidence that the main theme of all four is memory, its duplicity and solace. As regards more obviously SFnal works, I would like to keep my powder dry a little longer. There are plans afoot for more extended commentary on the science fiction of 2016 – more on that in the New Year – but for now I’d like to give a shout-out to Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, both works of genuine and far-reaching quality, literary and speculative, and an essential addition to the reading list of genre commentators.

I have always been an enthusiast for the novella form, and 2016 has brought us some fine examples. My favourite might have to be Carole Johnstone’s Wetwork, published in Black Static, a monstrous hybrid – in Johnstone’s own words – of True Detective and World War Z and (in my opinion at least) easily as good as the both of them put together. The glory of Wetwork is Johnstone’s use of language, the gnarly textures of Doric and Glasgow Scots, with Johnstone’s ear for dialogue one of the key features of her deeply felt writing. Close on its heels comes The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, a novella I fell in love with from the moment I encountered it. A story told against the aftermath of World War One, the eerie weirdness of Missives is surpassed only by Whiteley’s sense of place, the rural hamlets and farmsteads of western Somerset where the action takes place. Shirley and Mr Tiller are unforgettable characters, and Whiteley’s ability to combine a personal coming-of-age story with a politically resonant and significant narrative is as reliable as ever. Most recently we have A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson’s gloriously imagined, linguistically exuberant follow-up to last year’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  Along with Sofia Samatar, Wilson is for my money one of the most gifted and significant of the newer American writers, with his work rapidly becoming essential reading for anyone with an interest in speculative fiction. Wilson recently gave a podcast interview with Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan of the Coode Street Podcast, with his views on literature, aesthetics, political engagement and science fiction now as thoughtful and inspiring as anything he’s put on the page. Recommended listening, definitely.

I didn’t get round to reading anywhere near as much short fiction this year as I would have liked, but that doesn’t leave me short of recommendations. 2016 saw the publication in Interzone and Black Static of four new stories by Malcolm Devlin, a writer who has been floating just under the radar until now but who is certain to win greater notice in 2017 with the publication of his debut collection by Unsung Stories. For now, I would recommend you get ahead of the game by reading the magnificent ‘Dogsbody’ and ‘The End of Hope Street’, which showcase Devlin’s understated, bleakly humorous and shiningly original writing to perfection. Devlin’s collection, like Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney before it, is set to become one of the decade’s landmarks of English weird, so be ready to order your copy for early next summer. Speaking of Unsung Stories, one of their editors, Gary Budden, has a story out with Galley Beggar Singles, ‘We Are Nothing But Reeds’, the poignant and unsettling tale of a young couple who try to escape the crushing demands of a life in London for the depleted and mist-laden coastline of East Anglia. Budden’s writing is sparse, terse even, but perfectly suited to the landscapes of dislocation and alienation that are his natural milieu. A new discovery for me, Irenosen Okojie’s collection Speak Gigantular is a work of rare confidence, luminous imagery and full of hidden sharp edges. There are few things that bring greater joy in reading than coming upon a talent so delightful, so penetrating, so scandalous. Okojie’s stories are magical in all the most interesting senses of that word: devious, enthralling, unexpected. I would hope and expect to see Speak Gigantular shortlisted for awards next year. Helen Marshall’s ‘One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want’ in Liminal Stories and inspired by a set of photographs showing the stark social conditions prevalent in post-communist Romania, has the feel of a previously undiscovered Grimm brothers tale, but with a somewhat more hopeful ending. Benjanun Sriduangkaew had a great crop of new stories out this year. My favourite is probably ‘The Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings’ in Clockwork Phoenix 5, showcasing Sriduangkaew’s characteristically opulent, metaphor-rich language in a story that reminded me a little of Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, only much less predictable and more hard-hitting. Vajra Chandrasekera has also been busy in 2016, and his use of metafiction and instinctive, disruptive feel for language are always going to put his stories high on my list of favourites. Start with ‘Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes’ at Strange Horizons. Also at Strange Horizons we have Sarah Tolmie’s ‘The Dancer on the Stairs’, a story that first appeared as part of her duology Two Travelers earlier in the year. Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment. For further insights into her process, I recommend this interview with her, conducted by Maureen Kincaid Speller.

Within the realms of non-fiction, I must again recommend Tartarus Press’s volume of Joel Lane’s essays This Spectacular Darkness, edited and introduced by Mark Valentine, which truly is essential reading for everyone with an interest in weird fiction. Sticking with the weird, Big Echo have published Jonathan McCalmont’s extended essay Nothing Beside Remains: a History of the New Weird. An invaluable resource, McCalmont’s essay not only provides in-depth analysis of key writers and key movements in speculative fiction in the first half of the 2000s, but also links to key sources – in particular the TTA discussion forums – that tracked the development of the New Weird at the time. Another invaluable resource, Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF for tor.com (Part 1 and Part 2) is a fascinating and essential guide to what’s new and what’s happening in Afro-SF, both on the continent and in diaspora. The only downside to these pieces is the number of books you’ll want to buy as a result of reading them! I also want to mention Grady Hendrix’s Freaky Fridays at tor.com. This ongoing series of posts, in which Hendrix dissects the more bizarre extremities of 1970s/80s horror literature, is not only a treasure trove of horror esoterica, it’s flat-out entertaining too, providing me with many laugh-out-loud moments in a year that needed every laugh-out-loud moment it could get.

Not SF, but important to me this year have been Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be, a memoir that manages to be anti-memoir, a slim volume that examines the problematic nature of writing about the self, about war, about falling in love with a country that is not your own. Pawson’s writing is driven, nervy, never still. I read this book in one sitting over one long train journey and it is with me still. If I were to take one book away from this year to read again and again, it would probably have to be Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which has resonated as deeply and as lastingly for me as Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border the year before. The inevitable backlash against ‘nature writing’ has already started, and as with any genre I guess there is some self-indulgent, self-serving writing out there. H is for Hawk is neither of those things. It is tough, passionate, deeply invested in its subject matter and destined to become a classic.

Some of the best books I read this year were not published this year. Alasdair Gray’s mighty Lanark is a novel of lasting importance and genuine stature, probably the most substantial work of fiction I’ve read in some time. Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath is a novel I know I’ll be reading again from a writer whose excellence has yet to be fully appreciated. Andrew Miller’s The Crossing turned out to be every bit as affecting and surprising as I hoped it would be – how it wasn’t shortlisted for awards in its year of publication is beyond me. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser contains all the frustrations, contradictions and ravishing delight of pure genius, and though I’ve come late to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, that hasn’t prevented it from being the most important-to-me book I’ve read all year.

I would like to wish everyone reading this a very happy new year, and strength, courage and renewed determination in the months ahead. We shall be rethinking, regrouping, and looking to new projects. With The Rift now safely in the production pipeline I have the first draft of a new novel written, a book that is close to my heart and that I look forward to returning to work on in the coming weeks.

Here’s to 2017 and all who sail in her. The fightback starts here.