Category Archives: writing

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?



Women in SF #5

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What a gift of a book.

Kiernan’s novella The Dry Salvages was published as a standalone in 2004 by Subterranean. It won no awards, and so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it wasn’t even nominated for any. I can only assume this was because its limited print run of 250 copies meant that it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, because this little work is as close to perfect as it is possible to come. If there was a better novella/long fiction published in that year I’d be hungry to read it.

The story takes place four hundred years in the future. Our narrator is Audrey Cathar, a palaeontologist specialising in alien fossils and last surviving crew member of a deep-space mission to investigate the remains of an abandoned alien mining operation on a moon named Piros. Now an old woman, she gathers her courage and her memories to finally put down in writing what happened to her and her colleagues when they set out to discover what became of those who landed on Piros before them. This is not a happy story. But it is deliciously compelling and joyous to behold in its formal accomplishment. It is also a page-turner. I was saying to Chris just the evening before I read Kiernan’s novella, how tiring and how tiresome it is sometimes, to be forever chipping away at other people’s fiction to find out what they’re doing, how they did it and where they went wrong. ‘What I’m looking for is the book,’ I said. ‘You know, the book that will make me forget I’m a writer, just for a bit, and have me chasing the story to the point where that’s all I want to be doing.’

You know, the way it used to be before you started writing for publication.

The Dry Salvages felt like exactly the book I’d been looking for. But the fact is, Kiernan’s fiction always makes me feel this way. She doesn’t make me forget I’m a writer, exactly – it’s more that I feel so instinctively in tune with what she’s doing that I don’t have to worry about it. I know the writing will be lovely, I know she will interrogate reality in a way that feels urgent, and real, that whichever direction she chooses to go in, I’m not going to be disappointed. I can leave all that stuff up to her. Me, I can just turn those pages and revel in a story that will remind me of the ambitions I nurtured when I decided I was going to take my writing seriously in the first place. And ‘revel’ is the word. It’s wonderful to be reading a writer this talented. It’s something to be cherished.

There’s nothing that you would call precisely ‘new’ in The Dry Salvages. You could point to the Alien tetralogy or even the inferior-to-Alien but highly watchable and sometimes hilarious (‘I don’t need eyes where I’m going’) Event Horizon as precursors of the ideas on display here. But what marks out Kiernan’s novella as exceptional is the superlative execution of those ideas, the economy and ease with which concurrent themes – posthumanism, gender stereotyping, environmental collapse – are interwoven and made a piece with the core narrative, the intricacy and beauty of its formal construction. This novella is ten years old now, yet it has not aged a day. There is nothing showy or ostentatiously ‘current’ about it, and in its exploration of contemporary themes it never makes the mistake of letting its guiding ideologies overbalance the story. Like all the best science fiction, The Dry Salvages is approachable by anyone, even if they’ve never read a word of SF in their life. Like all the most convincing science fiction, it takes its starting point as now: there’s no attempt to exoticise the future here, to give it strange accents or outlandish clothing. What we see here might be tomorrow, only with today’s certainties removed.

Kiernan is never afraid to let her literature grapple full-body-contact with genre – these stories are about monsters, they’re about otherworlds, they’re about the supernatural and they’re about people falling prey to powers beyond our realm. They don’t fanny about, these stories. They don’t hint at monstrosity, only to sidle away from the genre aspects at the last minute and afford us a ‘rational’ explanation for what has happened. Kiernan is quite prepared to speculate that sometimes the only rational explanation is that the monsters might really be out there. But equally and why the hell don’t more people try this? she is never afraid to let her genre be literature. She gives her monsters and the people that encounter them, the cities or lonely places or deep-space stations the literary weight such subjects demand to be convincing, the psychological insight that does them justice.

One of the unfortunate things about SF du jour is how quickly and how embarrassingly it dates – at least in part because it’s consciously speaking to a community of fans who are familiar with the issues, who know about the hierarchies, who kind of love the in-fighting. But when that particular cohort of fans and hangers-on moves on, or gets ousted by a new crowd, what are we to make of the fiction that ‘season’ engendered? All too often, not much.

The writers who tend to produce what we know as classics are usually a law unto themselves. I think The Dry Salvages could become a classic, the kind of story people will still be devouring with pleasure and amazement a hundred years from now, the way we still read The Time Machine, or The Yellow Wallpaper, or Frankenstein.

We read these stories because we are thrilled by them, and horrified. We return to them because in their language and their ideas there is always more to discover.

I happen to believe that Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the greatest writers on the planet right now. I think it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get more recognition for that, and that few readers or writers outside of genre circles will even have heard of her.

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.

Flesh and Bones

“Kevern, look. I don’t know when your mother did these, but they are of another time. Art has changed. We have returned to the primordial celebration of the loveliness of the natural world. You  can see there is none of that in what your mother did. See how fractured her images are. There is no harmony here. The colours are brutal – forgive me, but you have asked me and I must tell you. I feel jittery just turning the pages. Even the human body, that most beautiful of forms, is made jagged and frightful. The human eye cannot rest for long on these, Kevern. There is too much mind here. They are disruptive of the peace we go to art to find.” (J, p 272)


When the longlist for the Man Booker prize was announced two months ago, I expressed delight that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had been selected – a choice that could only, I suggested, be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker – and surprise at the inclusion of Howard Jacobson. Not that the choice of Jacobson himself was anything out of the ordinary – he’s won the prize once already – but that in J he had produced a work that everyone seemed to agree was science fiction. I felt curious about that, to put it mildly, and thought it might be interesting in the run-up to the prize to read both works and compare them, to discover how two such outwardly dissimilar writers had chosen to approach speculative themes, to see which – if either – eventually made it through to the shortlist.

We now know the answer to that last – Jacobson’s J made the cut, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks didn’t. But what of the books themselves? Mitchell’s novel was the bookies’ favourite right through the longlist period, with both mainstream and SFF critics expressing strong opinions about it, and its disinclusion came as something of a shock. Conversely, no one seemed to be talking much about J, and the previously Booker-crowned Jacobson appeared something of an outsider. At the time of the shortlist announcement I was about halfway through The Bone Clocks, and planning to move on to J as soon as I’d finished. Having now read them both. I think it’s safe to say that my opinions coming out of this particular reading experience are pretty much the opposite of what I expected. That in itself has made this mini-project worthwhile.

I went into The Bone Clocks from the position of having read all Mitchell’s previous works bar one (The Thousand Autumns) and considered them all well above average, both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of what Mitchell was trying to achieve with it. I had a particular fondness for Black Swan Green, and thought both the concept and execution of Cloud Atlas close to miraculous. I was expecting big things of The Bone Clocks, especially given that it had been widely tagged as Mitchell’s most openly speculative novel to date.

That is true – it is – but that goes no way towards mitigating the fact that in my opinion it is also Mitchell’s weakest novel by quite some distance. The mainstream critics who thought the novel was let down by its ‘plunge’ into fantasy in the fifth segment pointed to the rest of the novel – its five realworld sections – as proof of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. If only he’d ditch all this awful genre nonsense, they seemed to be saying, we might actually have a decent writer on our hands. Many of those same critics have pointed to Mitchell’s characterisation – and his portrayal of his central character Holly Sykes in particular – as the chief strength of the novel, but for me it felt patchy at best, bland for the most part, and dire at worst. Far from being a brilliantly realised creation Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own. We learn little, if anything, of Holly’s interests or ambitions. As she appears in ‘A Hot Spell’ (the novel’s first long segment) she is deliberately set up to be a ‘typical’ fifteen-year-old girl, enamoured of the wrong boyfriend and looking for any excuse to cut loose from her parents. I found Mitchell’s realisation of the teenage mind unconvincing. He deliberately sets out to make Holly as ‘average’ as possible, scattering her speech with contractions and ‘causes, but his portrayal of her is inconsistent – he has Holly referencing Radio 4’s Thought for the Day at one point, and her stroppiness and decision to become a runaway feel like bolt-on elements, exercises in youthful alienation rather than the real deal. In contrast with the beautifully evoked, deeply felt ambience of Black Swan Green, the whole of this part one seems strangely flat, a recapitulation stripped of weight and personal investment. The checklist of references to contemporary politics and music has all the verisimilitude of stage decoration for a 1980s theme party. As the book progresses Holly becomes even less her own person, dragooned into action first as a winning waif pursued by an amoral serial seducer, then as the pissed-off partner of an obsessive war reporter (some of the dialogue that is given to Holly in that section is just awful) and as ‘mysterious other’ for a morally bankrupt author later on. We are asked to see Holly as ‘special’ – yet aside from the fact that she hears voices, we know nothing about her specialness, because we know next to nothing about her. We are interested in her because our attention is caught by the way she keeps cropping up throughout the book – but shorn of the forward momentum granted to her by the plot, there is remarkably little substance to Holly Sykes. She is wooden throughout, a narrative placeholder. When you consider the wonderful characterisation we saw in Cloud Atlas – the Sixsmith/Frobisher section contains some of the finest writing Mitchell has yet produced – and the brilliant portrayal of the teenager Jason in Black Swan Green, this is still more of a pity.

The most consistent character-building we find in The Bone Clocks comes in ‘Myrrh is Mine, its Bitter Perfume’ (the novel’s second segment) and ‘Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet’ (its fourth). The ‘hero’ of the former is Hugo Lamb, who gave a cameo appearance as Jason’s loathsome cousin in Black Swan Green and who appears here as an even more loathsome Cambridge undergraduate and amateur-soon-to-turn-professional sociopath. Hugo’s attitudes and behaviours are worse than vile, and he is brilliantly written. Equally so is Crispin Hershey, an embittered novelist who takes his revenge on a literary critic with appalling results. (In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mitchell insisted that the character of Hershey was not based on Martin Amis. Dessicated Embryos, he reminded us, was the title of a piano work by Erik Satie, not a backhanded reference to one of the younger Mr Amis’s early successes. But Red Monkey? Hal ‘The Hyena’ Grundy?? Come on.) Both Lamb’s portion of the narrative and Hershey’s are dynamic and vigorous, enlivened by moments of genuine comedy and, in Hershey’s case, pathos. A shame then that ‘The Wedding Bash’, part three of the novel and potentially just as interesting as the two sections that bookend it, turns out to be another misfire. Its protagonist Ed Brubeck was interesting in ‘A Hot Spell’ – intelligent, mature beyond his years and a bit of a loner, he came off the page far more forcefully than Holly. But when he reappears as a war journalist in ‘The Wedding Bash’, it seems to be for the sole purpose of expounding Mitchell’s views on Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that one disagrees with Ed’s views – indeed the section might have been a lot more interesting if one had – but that they would appear to have zero importance to or impact on the novel as it progresses. I initially believed that Mitchell was playing a long game, that he would be bound to link this realworld war in some ingenious way with the ‘secret history’ that is revealed two hundred pages later. As it turns out, no – Ed Brubeck is just the author having a go at Tony Blair. Not a bad thing in itself, but not relevant to the story either.

Which brings us to the crux of this novel, or its downfall, depending on your point of view. In ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’, part five of the novel and its longest section, we learn that Holly has been a pawn in a larger game all along, a centuries-long battle between two opposing groups of immortals, the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the soul-sucking baddies). It is these meddlesome demigods who variously ‘stole’ Holly’s brother, co-opted her lover to the dark side, helped her to find her missing daughter and plagued her with invisible voices from the age of seven. Now is the time of final reckoning, a fight to the death between the Blind Cathar and his Forces of Evil and our plucky band of Scoobies, outmanned in numbers but not in moral strength.

Where do we even start?? In his review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood stated the following:

As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant.

I earlier wrote a lengthy criticism of Wood’s essay, because it seemed and still seems to me that to equate ‘the human activity’ solely with the realist mode is to denigrate a mode of literature – the fantastic – whilst remaining ignorant of its capabilities. I stand by that assertion, and would go further in saying that Wood’s main purpose in this essay seems to lie in using The Bone Clocks as a proof of the inherent crapness of speculative fiction generally. I think he’s got it the wrong way round – one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.

It is the imbalance that is so embarrassing, the use of the kind of broad brush gestures and clichéd dialogue that would and should not be taken seriously in any literary context. Contrary to what Wood says in his review, the best speculative fiction works precisely because the writer sees no inherent difference, in fictional terms, between the quotidian realm and the fantastical, and approaches the writing of each – characterisation, sense of place, the use of language – with equal care and weight. In terms of a story’s seriousness, whether the ‘human case’ to be examined resides in a fictional Glasgow or a fictional Gormenghast should be of little importance. Mitchell himself clearly understands this – even if some of the science fiction in Cloud Atlas feels a little clunky, there can be no doubt that Mitchell fought hard for the soul of that book and won. The central SFnal sections feel as integral to the whole as the outer, realworld sections, and in formal as well as plot terms each thread of the story leads logically and elegantly from one to the next. In ambition and execution, Cloud Atlas as a novel project more than measures up to Mitchell’s formidable talent as a storyteller.

Why then is ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’ so rife with genre cliché – decades-old genre cliché at that? Why does Hugo Lamb, so brilliantly realised in part two, reappear speaking like a badly-written Bond villain in part five? Why does Holly suddenly start bellowing about FAHMLY in upper case? I sought desperately for some ironical, authorial awareness of just how ham-fisted this section is, but failed to find it. It felt like being trapped in a particularly dreadful episode of Doctor Who.

The sixth section, ‘Sheep’s Head’, is not much better. We’re into science fiction territory now, so of course everyone starts capitalising their nouns: Convoy, Cordon, Village. Then someone says: ‘There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling, I’ve met it before’ (p542), the Chinese are blamed for slaughtering the last elephant herds for the luxury goods market, and Holly wonders what it’s going to be like for her granddaughter Lorelei, being raped by born-again Christians and forced into servitude in some even-worse version of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s eventual denouement is so lazy and so – I hate to use the word of a writer like Mitchell – trite it barely merits discussion. One reader review I happened upon suggested that the Horologists are ciphers for writers, that the novel’s ending is a wishful rewriting of ‘the Script’. This could have been an interesting idea, but there is little evidence that this is what Mitchell intended, and if it is, then he has fumbled the execution so badly that it scarcely matters. Ian McEwan performed that trick better at the end of Atonement, and I say that as someone not keen on praising McEwan at the best of times.

I think the best word to describe my feelings about The Bone Clocks is baffled. Here we have six loosely linked novellas struggling to find a core narrative. Here we have a use of genre tropes so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy. What is Mitchell trying to tell us here, what was he trying to do? Was it simply that he struggled with this book for so long that it finally overmastered him? I can empathise with that situation, one-hundred percent. But no amount of fellow feeling, or admiration for the talent that still bursts suddenly and unexpectedly to life in parts of even this book, will prevent The Bone Clocks from being anything other than a baggy, directionless mess.

I fully expected to love The Bone Clocks. I thought this might be the year Mitchell won the Booker. I came away thinking that he’d have to pull something pretty special out of the bag to make me trust him again. Howard Jacobson’s J was another matter entirely. Jacobson is one of those writers whose flagrant self-regard seems so unwieldy it is almost comedic. I went into the book assuming I would hate it, that it would be both useless at being SF and so up itself as to be more or less unreadable. I was prepared for almost anything but what I actually found: a work that is unlike anything else I have ever read, a book that has nothing do to with science fiction but that is nonetheless fascinating in the way it approaches speculative materials, a novel that will remain with me long after the discussion of the current Booker Prize shortlist is over and no matter what the result.

J has been widely described as a dystopia, bearing comparison with classics of the subgenre such as 1984 and Brave New World. I personally think this is misleading, and anyone picking up J expecting a gory slice of police brutality and the perils of being a subversive in an authoritarian State with a capital S is going to find him or herself confounded almost immediately. No doubt there will be complaints in some quarters – indeed I’ve already encountered a few – that Jacobson shows no interest in what I would reluctantly describe as worldbuilding, in constructing a quid pro quo equivalent of a fully realised dystopian universe complete with depleted landscapes, alternate technologies and carefully delineated chart of alternate history. I would argue that Jacobson’s scattershot attempts at worldbuilding – there is a thing called a utility phone that will only accept local calls, the internet has been deconstructed or abolished, the names of places and people have been rearranged – are kept deliberately vague, because worldbuilding was the last thing on Jacobson’s mind (he has probably not even heard of the concept and would doubtless sneer at it if he had). Unlike other mainstream dabblers, Jacobson does not fail at science fiction, because he wasn’t trying to write science fiction in the first place. Where mainstream writers trying their hands at SF so often go wrong is in concentrating so hard on reconstructing what has already been done that they lose control of the central thrust of their idea – or else discover that they never had one (see above). The resulting texts often feel pallid, an emotional or intellectual void. Gutless. Once the second hand trappings of dystopia or post-apocalypse or whatever have been stripped away, there is nothing to see. Jacobson has provided us with something to see, a thought-experiment so effective and so original that there is only one way to read this book: forget SF, forget dystopia, forget any preconceived ideas you might have about Jacobson and read the book for what it is.

In steep contrast with The Bone Clocks, J is not an easy reading experience. I don’t just mean the content, I mean the style, which is terse, undramatic, frequently wordy, sometimes opaque. It is, as they say, hard to get into. But if there is a secret to reading J, it is not to try to get into it, but instead to let it get into you. Let it possess you. See what happens. Although evasion – not saying things, not clarifying, not noticing – forms the very fabric of J, the novel is not in the end evasive, and its central characters, though rendered elliptically in muted tones and without any of Mitchell’s gestural verismo, become insistent in their reality, terrifying in their vulnerability. They linger in the mind. In the very best sense of the word they are durable. For all Jacobson’s reticence in revealing her, Ailinn Solomons turns out to be just about a hundred times more convincing and important than Holly Sykes.

Another misconception about J is that it is ‘about’ the Nazi Holocaust. Although the fictional event at the centre of the novel – referred to throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED – concerns the massacre of Jews, Jacobson has said in interview that J is not about antisemitism or the Holocaust specifically:

The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.

To ‘write what he knows’ has been a sound decision for Jacobson, because the sense of quietly determined, indeed passionate personal investment that permeates this text allows it to be transformed all the more forcibly into the universal. In essence, J is about all othering – scapegoating, politicised hatred, the corruption of a whole society by the sense that there are ‘some people’ who it is all right to ostracise, blame, dispose of because they don’t really belong, who are ‘not like us’. What J does most effectively is to deprive us of the ‘just obeying orders’ defence, as put forward by concentration camp functionaries and SS officers at Nuremberg. J shows us a society sanctimoniously in mourning for itself, even while the cells of resurgent hatreds – hatreds that have never in fact gone away – bubble like septic sores just beneath the surface. The atmosphere of unease, of dread – especially in the more openly fantastical ‘Necropolis’ section of the book, which reads like a half-remembered nightmare – is palpable. The complacency of individuals – the bland smiles, the bland music – becomes ever more chilling as the book progresses. In the end you realise – as our protagonist has suspected all along – that you are standing on ground that looked solid, but that has been fatally undermined and is about to collapse:

‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny…to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels… Plus zealotry. Never forget zealotry, that torch to the easily inflamed passions of the benighted and the cultured alike. What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation. We have been lulled by the great autocrat-driven genocides of the recent past into thinking that nothing of that enormity of madness can ever happen again, not anywhere, least of all here. And it’s true – nothing on such a scale probably ever will. But lower down the order of horrors, and answering a far more modest ambition, carnage can still be connived at – lesser bloodbaths, minor murders, butchery of more modest proportions.’ (J p 292)

In his New Yorker review, James Wood argues that the fantasy element of The Bone Clocks is so overbearing it renders its human protagonists impotent – in fact the central issue with Mitchell’s novel is that the fantasy element is actually meaningless, a paper tiger, a bit of cheap decoration pinned on to a story that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to do. The novel wears its fantasy on its sleeve like a row of brass buttons polished to mirror brightness but does nothing with it. The Bone Clocks is easy and often enjoyable to read, but when you ask yourself what it is about, you are forced to conclude: not a lot. By contrast, J takes those elements of speculative fiction that make it so versatile and so important – the idea of disjuncture, of discomfiture, of imagining – and fashions from them something that is both remarkable in terms of its concept and vital in terms of what it is saying. The novel is meticulously crafted, a concentrated amalgam of thought and emotion that entirely repays the effort of getting to grips with it. It is a resolute book, a tough book. Is it valuable as literature? Yes. Should Jacobson feel proud of what he has achieved here? Certainly.

I have been here before

My first encounter with J. B. Priestley’s time plays was in a 1983 BBC adaptation of his 1932 play Dangerous Corner, starring a young Daniel Day Lewis in the role of Gordon. The play explores what happens in two alternate versions of reality – one in which certain secrets happen to be revealed, the other in which the protagonists wisely keep them hidden. I was mesmerised by the play, by the idea of a ‘dangerous corner’, a moment where time splits in two with dangerous repercussions. I was sixteen years old. I hadn’t heard of J. B. Priestley and didn’t consciously remember him as the playwright, although the work itself remained with me in crystal clarity.

Two years later – at Christmas, if I remember correctly – I saw another TV adaptation of one of Priestley’s plays, the 1937 Time and the Conways this time, starring Claire Bloom as Mrs Conway, Phyllis Logan as Kay, a young Simon Shepherd as Robin and Simon Russell Beale, of all people, as a party guest. This play explored time in another way, giving characters a sobering and tragic glimpse of their own future. Two years after that I saw I Have Been Here Before on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. This third play, also premiered in 1937, explores the time-stacking phenomenon of deja vu.

Priestley’s time plays are seldom claimed for science fiction, yet they make bold and ingenious use of conceits that have become central tenets of science fiction literature. It would be difficult to overstate the cumulative effect these emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating works had upon me, and looking back on them now, their influence is obvious. Two nights ago I happened to hear – with great pleasure and some emotion – a radio adaptation of Dangerous Corner, starring Martin Jarvis as Robert and first broadcast in 1984. The character upon whom events turn – and yet who never appears on stage – is called Martin. As the other characters recount their memories of him, and of exactly what happened at his house one night the year before, we learn that their versions of Martin are so at odds with one another that they might as well each be describing a different man.

When I wrote the stories that make up my story cycle The Silver Wind, I was not consciously thinking about Dangerous Corner, or indeed any of Priestley’s time plays. But it seems clear to me now that they were an abiding inspiration, nonetheless. I still feel moved and excited when I think about these extraordinary works, and my own memories of first encountering them will always remain precious. I have no doubt that to anyone coming to them now, Priestley’s time plays might seem dated, especially in the adaptations I’ve mentioned, complete with BBC accents and Anglo-Saxon attitudes. But these plays are getting on for a hundred years old. They’ve worn pretty well, considering, and in their intellectual curiosity and human emotion they remain timeless.

Wood for the trees

“Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more.The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

So argues critic James Wood, in his review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for The New Yorker.  I must begin by saying that I have not yet read The Bone Clocks, though my copy is on its way to me as I write, but I felt I had to say something about Wood’s piece, not so much because I feel he completely misunderstands what Mitchell is about (though this is true, and reading his review put me in mind of those Punt and Dennis sketches about the embarrassing dad) but because it reveals so much about the way he, together with most of the über-critics of today (John Mullan comes to mind) so regularly misunderstand and disparage not just science fiction and fantasy but any narrative mode that does not conform to their preconceived notions of how fiction has to behave in order to be considered serious. In this article alone, Wood points to ‘weightless fantasy’ and the ‘demented intricacies of science fiction’ as salient devaluing characteristics of Mitchell’s novel, and by extension all fiction by contemporary writers who employ speculative elements or alternative modes of narration as an integral part of their work:

“As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant.”

I felt embarrassed to read this, and sad, and angry.  Because even if you’d never come across any of Wood’s essays before, you’d know just from these few lines that he’s one of those critics who will happily ‘allow’ for the validity of speculative materials where the authors in question are safely dead, buried, and readily assimilable into the Oxbridge canon – Beowulf, Homer, Shelley, Bronte, Le Fanu, Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, Wyndham, Golding, Ballard and even up to and including the happily-still-living Susan Cooper – and yet who seem not just to misinterpret but actually to fear – the barbarians are at the gate! – contemporary innovations and experiments in genre, form and diversity among today’s writers. The only valid use of the fantastic in literature today, Wood argues, is in fiction aimed at children. (You might remember that Kate Saunders made a similar pronouncement in her patronising and sexist profile of Eleanor Catton for The Times last year.)

Wood cites Ford Madox Ford as the supreme ‘investigator of the human case’, and well he might. Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the novels that gets cited everywhere, both in newspaper features as one of those ‘100 books to read before you die’, and by other writers as the supreme example of ‘the perfect novel’, the kind of book you find yourself coming back to again and again. I wouldn’t argue with any of that. I first read The Good Soldier about three years ago – I missed it when I was at uni, and then found myself forever putting it off, plagued by that resistance one instinctively feels towards books that people are always telling you you ‘simply must’ read. When I finally got down to it I was hooked more or less immediately. The story on the surface is a predictable bit of soap opera – a tale of wife-swapping and moral degeneracy involving upper class types perambulating around Europe for the sake of their health – but Ford’s use of techniques that were then very new (a discursive, time-jumping narrative, a supremely unreliable narrator), the subversion of the novel’s restrained, nostalgic tone by the passion and violence of the events described, together with the perfectly crafted elegance of the writing itself make this novel something very special in terms of what it is (a modern novel), when it was written (on the eve of WW1) and what it represents (the shattering of an era and a worldview). Please note also, James Wood, that one of the chief pleasures of The Good Soldier is its almost addictive readability.  This was one of those rare novels (when you’re a writer they become increasingly rare) that I lost myself in to such an extent that I forgot all about the writer, and what he was doing, and how well he’d succeeded – I just wanted to know what happened, dammit.

So I’m not coming here to dis Ford, or his transatlantic literary inheritors Franzen and DeLillo and Eugenides and Yates. (There is no writer on this side of the Atlantic currently working who is as incisive and insightful in this particular sphere – Barnes and McEwan, for example, are parochial doodlers by comparison with the writers above, a fact that Wood as well as Ford might find ironic.) The novel, so long not-dead, is so perennial and so various and so inclusive that there will always be room and reason for novels like The Good Soldier and The Corrections. But to imply, as Wood does, firstly that good storytelling must come at the expense of ‘meaning’, and secondly that the very diversity of the novel today has detrimentally affected the pursuit of ‘the profoundly serious’, is to my mind both incorrect and dangerously limiting.

At one point in his review, Wood laments that David Mitchell’s previous novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ‘begins as a formidably achieved historical novel but gradually turns into something out of Japanese anime’. Once again, a cursory disparagement of a whole mode of storytelling (and I would be willing to bet that Wood knows even less about Japanese anime than he knows about science fiction) and a complete absence of interest in what Mitchell might actually be doing or saying with his employment of this kind of imagery and interweaving of styles. If Mitchell is capable of such ‘formidable achievement’ by Wood’s mark, surely his decision to subvert the recognisably realistic aspects of his narrative by the playing them off against more fantastical conceits comes down to more than literary naivete or unhappy accident? So much for serious investigation.

What is it about science fiction that so terrifies critics like Wood? The key, I think, lies in what he says here:

The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, in pleasingly familiar territory. We are in the provincial England of Black Swan Green—a world of possessive lower-middle-class parents, bad English cars, inventive slang, and terrific music.”

Wood is comfortable with these things, because he knows what’s going on. It is only when things ‘quickly get peculiar’ that he feels less certain of what is going on, and therefore less comfortable. Note the coupling of the adverb ‘pleasingly’ with the adjective ‘familiar’. For critics like Wood, it is always going to be that familiarity – that sense of being on home ground, and therefore at an advantage – that is pleasing, just as the sense of being plunged into the ‘peculiar’ – i.e any milieu that is not immediately assimilable by them – is disconcerting and therefore ‘weightless’.

It would appear that science fiction and the literature of the fantastic can leave some critics feeling as if they have been divested of their intellectual armoury. Unused to the terrain, they flounder – does she really mean this literally, or is it a metaphor??? Unused to being inexpert, they reject. For critics such as these, it is safer to reject the unaccustomed as not-serious, because they know serious, and this isn’t it. It is interesting to note that Wood is perfectly comfortable with the idea of creative speculation when it fits his own remit – he happily asserts, for example, that the fact that ‘[the protagonists’] freedom is itself fictional is an unimportant paradox, just part of the everyday novelistic contract’ – yet is contemptuously dismissive of ‘unreality’ when it is employed in the service of ideas he has not learned the vocabulary for, or by a writer he does not deem worthy of serious consideration.

Novel means new, and luckily for all those who love books, the novel today is still as new as the day it was born. Novelists who interest themselves in human affairs should and will continually seek out new ways of exploring, expressing, and yes, seriously investigating the diverse experiences of reality that exist. Is David Mitchell’s investigation in The Bone Clocks less worthy of attention than Martin Amis’s in his also-recently-published novel The Zone of Interest, simply because Mitchell’s iconography of evil is an imaginative construct, whereas in his use of the persons and symbols of Nazi Germany Amis has chosen to co-opt an iconography of evil that is already familiar to us? Amis takes less risk, certainly. (Whether his motives are more questionable is a matter that lies beyond the scope of this essay.) Similarly with the DVD box sets, graphic novels and RPGs that Wood so disparages. I cannot help feeling that Wood is rejecting these modes of discourse not because he has tried them and found them wanting, but because he believes they threaten the intrinsic seriousness of what is aesthetically worthy and allowable in his version of reality. Because they are unfamiliar, in other words. For Wood, aesthetic worth is mostly about shoring up a set of values he takes to be objective. In fact they are learned, a set of received opinions. Some of them may be good opinions, but if Wood is afraid to test them against other modes of expression, how will he know?

Almost exactly a century after the publication of The Good Soldier, we are living in a world Ford would barely recognise, a world both smaller and larger, more monolithic and more diverse. The anxieties we face are practical as well as internal. For writers wishing to interrogate those anxieties, it is vital and natural that we diversify our sources, our inspirations, and our ways of seeing. We may draw inspiration from Ford, not just because he wrote a great novel but because he was doing in his time what we should be doing in ours: pushing the boundaries. But as a profoundly serious investigation into the human case, it should be more or less impossible for a writer today to write a novel that examines the world in quite the same way that The Good Soldier does. Not, whatever Wood might think, because Ford’s level of technique is sadly lost to us barbarians, but because the world as Ford experienced it and thought about it is off-kilter in so many ways, wrong-headed, misinformed, gone. The kind of critic that bemoans the passing of such an aesthetic is all too often of the same stripe as those who used annually to complain about the increasing proliferation of novels by ‘un-English’ writers on the Booker shortlist.

The job of the writer should surely be more than the simple transcribing of what is already known. What we know is our raw material, to be warped, transported, alchemically altered into what we imagine. It is in the nature of science fiction above all to recognise that what we take for normality today could differ radically from might happen tomorrow, that even as we fumble towards it, reality eludes us. It is the most supple and adaptable of literatures and, it could be argued, there is none more perfectly suited to the serious investigation of the spaces – mental and physical, personal and public, inner and outer – we find ourselves inhabiting today.

In any case, there are more places to contemplate the world from than through a Harvard window.


When you think of all the ways that a person can die, the powerlessness we feel in the face of cancer, or a violent earthquake or even simple old age, it would seem to be the ultimate expression of human madness to set about inventing new ways to kill one another.

When you think even of a common housefly, the jewelled intricacy of its workings, the impossibility for a human scientist of ever, ever being able to construct something one-tenth as fit for purpose, one-hundredth as beautiful…

It is both incredibly easy to kill a person, and nightmarishly difficult. Thousands may be eliminated in less than a second, reduced soundlessly to dust and blown away on the wind. Yet the same blast will leave others maimed and monstrous, injured beyond recovery with days of agonised suffering still ahead.

I think of these things, that I have seen, and I feel tired. It is both a miracle and an affront that my life can now proceed as before, in spite of all this, that I can enjoy the privilege of recovery. I helped one person. This does not feel like nearly enough to justify my continued survival, yet I am glad to be alive.

Somewhere inside myself I carry the delusion that it will help, to write things down, that it will justify my actions, even.

The truth is that no one cares if I was selfish or not, or brave or not. They – you – are all too concerned with your own place in the scheme of things, with your righteous opinions and clever predictions and pathetic, self-serving generalisations.

If I could only believe that it will not happen again, I would give up my anger. It will happen again, though. It is only the abattoir workers who don’t eat meat, have you noticed that? Those who were there.

The rest of us, safe on the outside, we make tutting noises, and resolutions, but we keep on buying our lamb’s liver and our salami.


I first heard a recording by Agafya Doers when I was eight years old, the first concerto by Medtner, recorded when Doers was still a young woman, studying at the Moscow Conservatoire. I had been taking piano lessons for two years already, but it was that record by Doers that made me begin to imagine my future as a musician.

The Medtner is a crazed work, really, one of those overblown Romantic concertos written in the first decades of the twentieth century that possess the gladiatorial spirit of similar nineteenth century works – Tchaikovsky, Saint Saens – but none of their certainties. Trenchantly opposed to modernism, they still cannot avoid the slide into harmonic breakdown and psychological disarray.

There were people who described Medtner’s work as demonic. His first concerto is a towering white elephant, a cacophony of monster chords and bombast that manages to fuse the sensibilities of a royalist conservative with a bomb-throwing revolutionary. It is a tiresome thing, all insistence and no intellect. Its worked-out themes bombastically lament the passing of the age that fought to retain slavery and culminated in the seething battlefields of the First World War. It is a work that ought only to be listened to in the concert hall, where it can at least be offered the elbow room sufficient to offset its slovenly table manners.

Doers’s recording, like any truly great artistic endeavour, slams the door in the face of such arguments, sends them off with a swear word and a thick ear. It is so thrilling that, listening to it, you cannot escape the sneaking feeling that you are engaged in an illicit activity. The blocks of chords, carved from granite, are delivered with such authority that it makes you feel certain that this is the finest music that has yet been written.

As an eight-year-old child, Agafya Doers’s performance – it was my father’s record, bought on a whim (it was my mother who had insisted that I should learn the piano) – impacted itself upon me like a coded message from what I hoped might be my own future. Staring at the black-and-white photograph of Doers on the reverse side of the record sleeve, I came the closest I’d yet come to falling in love.

The immediate effect of this was that I began to take my piano practice more seriously. I followed every twist and turn of Doers’s career – her victory in the Tchaikovsky competition, her friendship with the Italian composer Odette Hirschel, the falsified reports of her defection in 1958 – and when she came to perform in Leipzig in 1959 I badgered my mother senseless until she agreed that we should go. It was an expensive business – as well as the cost of the tickets, we would have to stay in a hotel overnight – but I had never been the kind of child to routinely make extravagant requests, and what with my teachers confirming that it would be ‘a good experience’ for me, my mother must have thought it worth the outlay.

Doers wasn’t playing the Medtner. (“That untidy thing!” she said to me, two years later. We knew each other better by then. “I can’t remember now why I decided to learn it.”) If you look up her CV, you’ll see that she never played that concerto in public again after 1955. She was playing a new work, a sprawling concertante by Pavel Zaitsky, originally written for Igor Aitmatov but enthusiastically championed by Doers from the time of its Moscow premiere in 1956. I’d never heard it before, but I’d read the notices. I had saved up for a copy of the expensive sheet music, even though the concerto was well beyond my abilities at that time.

My most cherished hope was that Doers would sign it for me, which she did.

Two years later, I was awarded a scholarship to go and study with her, as one of the six privately selected students she took on each year.

‘I know it will be inconvenient’, she wrote to me, three months before I was due to take up my scholarship. ‘But we will have to be in Voronezh this year because of my grandmother.’ From the beginning of our acquaintance she always wrote to me by hand, on the same poor quality ruled notepaper, in her awful German, in the close, crabbed handwriting that I could barely read at first but that by the time I actually travelled to Voronezh had become as familiar to me as my own.

I remember the almost unearthly thrill of that first letter, how I hardly dared answer it for fear of sounding foolish. Doers was normally based in Kiev, but her grandmother had fallen ill, and Doers had recently been forced to return there to look after her. ‘She more or less brought me up,’ she wrote to me. She used half a page of the letter to describe the state her grandmother’s flat had been in when she arrived in the city, then another half page bemoaning the lack of a decent piano tuner, then finished off with a close and perfect analysis of my taped recording of the Chopin third sonata which the Academy had sent her as a demo tape.

I still have no idea if she really remembered our first, very brief encounter in the backstage area of the Staatshalle in Leipzig, but she knew my Chopin, note for note, just as she always remembered every detail of our lessons, perfectly and in sequence.

Doers’s grandmother died two weeks before I arrived in Voronezh. Typically, Doers refused to consider moving back to Kiev until the following summer.

‘Everything’s been arranged,’ she wrote to me. ‘I can’t possibly uproot myself now, not at this short notice.’

More than anything, Doers hated any disruption to her routine. She used to say that practical disruptions left scars on her mind.

She begrudged any and every moment spent thinking about anything that wasn’t music. Voronezh was inconvenient, but changing her plans would be even more disruptive, so she decided to stay.

I didn’t mind. Everyone said Voronezh was the back of beyond, but having lived my whole life in a small rural village in Eastern Germany that kind of obscurity was something I was used to.

I would be studying with Agafya Doers. The idea of being isolated, cut off from everything except music, secretly appealed to me.

If her grandmother had died three months earlier, Doers would have remained in Kiev, and I would have been a different person.