Category Archives: writing

Afterwards: thinking about the Sharke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agents of Dreamland

“The best foreshadowing never seems like foreshadowing.”

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

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

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

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

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

Obsolescence

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

Dreams Before the Start of Time

In all the political excitement and confusion of the past ten hours, no one should forget that today also sees the publication of Anne Charnock’s beautifully crafted third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time. A sequel-of-sorts to her second, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Dreams has us revisit one of the main characters from that novel, and brings us a whole host of new characters to populate, clarify and meditate upon the technological, sociological and environmental changes that have taken place in her world since last we saw her.

Toni was a teenage girl in Sleeping Embers. Now an old lady, her store of memories and knowledge of possibilities beyond the parameters of the existence we know makes her – and the reality she inhabits – both utterly compelling as a character and a notable and important exemplar of everything science fiction can be capable of when it is as good as this.

I greatly admire this book. I love the music it makes when listened to in consort with its equally accomplished predecessor. Most of all, I’m delighted and inspired by Anne Charnock’s writing talent, her contemplative, forensic, insatiably curious approach to speculative fiction. The three novels she has produced to date constitute a significant literary achievement in their own right, as well as being the springboard from which – I feel sure of it – Charnock will leap towards still more confident advances in the novels to come.

What with all the Sharke-ing, I’ve not yet had time to write the review this novel deserves, but in a way that’s a good thing as your reading energies would be far better spent in getting stuck into the book itself. But for any of you who do enjoy a more detailed introduction, look no further than From Couch to Moon, where you’ll see that my fellow Sharke, Megan AM, clearly enjoyed Dreams Before the Start of Time as much as I did.

One for next year’s shortlist, that’s for sure…

 

#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.)

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.

The elephant in the room

As part of his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh recently expressed his concern that climate change as a subject matter is not being adequately covered or even taken seriously by ‘serious’ novelists:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

He goes on to assert that the bulk of the literature that enjoys critical ascendancy today is indeed a literature of concealment, the skill of its writers directed towards foregrounding quotidian ultra-realism at the expense of more extraordinary and therefore less realistic narrative events, that the art of the modern novel is all about filler material:

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

It’s a fascinating theory, and would be all the more fascinating, perhaps, if it had a greater basis in reality. The science fiction reader and writer will rightly take issue with Ghosh, reeling off an ever-expanding list of novels from the past decade and much further back than that in which climate change is the fulcrum, the driver, the core subject matter. That Ghosh has specifically chosen to exclude science fiction from the debate is both weird and frustrating. ‘When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss’, Ghosh writes. He can think of only a handful of novelists – Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and TC Boyle chief among them – that have engaged with the subject directly. Moreover:

It could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

Ghosh seems very preoccupied with the concept of ‘seriousness’, as well he might be. But is Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels truly a less ‘serious’ novel than Rachel Cusk’s Transit? Is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World less worthy of literary analysis than Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils? As a proposition, this is clearly ridiculous, and leads one to wonder exactly what Ghosh – himself a previous winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award – is trying to say here. That literary fiction of a certain stripe does not see fit to concern itself much with current affairs, perhaps? He goes on to present another mildly diverting theory: that ‘serious’ writers are themselves imaginatively imprisoned by the assumptions and material trappings of our toxic, carbon-emitting global economy, that they have driven themselves (literally) into a place of such complicity that overt criticism or even discussion has become impossible. While it may be true that anyone living within a society and not actively campaigning against the injustices it supports is complicit with it to an extent, as Ghosh himself concedes, most contemporary writers across a wide variety of backgrounds and literary interests point precisely to climate change (alongside racism, social inequality and the obduracy of the political class) as the subject that most preoccupies them on a daily and often hourly basis.

No. What concerns Ghosh most seems grounded within this concept of seriousness, the perceived suitability of climate change as a subject for serious fiction. It’s fine for writers to talk about climate change in interview or other forms of non-fiction, Ghosh maintains, but write a novel about it and you’ll be given the side-eye by the broadsheet critics or – worse still – no eye at all:

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

Ghosh’s essay is, as one would expect, thoughtful, concerned and well meaning. But once one begins to deconstruct it, one cannot help wondering why he didn’t go one step further and ask himself what this mansion of his actually stands for, and whether the reverence he affords it might not be part of the problem? If the ‘serious’ fiction he so desperately wants climate change to be ‘acceptable’ to as a subject matter has not always been conservative, reflective of societal norms rather than challenging to them? Whether it is hailed as serious by establishment elites precisely because it is happy to be non-confrontational, shunted off down the side-streets of political relevance, to write about the past rather than the future?

Ghosh talks about a ‘feedback loop’, a chicken-and-egg situation in which climate change is not deemed serious as a subject matter ergo few serious novelists write about it ergo it is not deemed serious etc etc etc  What he does not acknowledge is that in writing this essay, he is himself contributing to a feedback loop that dismisses science fiction literature as inherently generic, not-serious, and therefore unworthy of consideration within the context of this discussion. That by concentrating his attentions upon an area of literature that is at least partially susceptible to propping up outmoded and often damaging value systems, he is himself playing into the hands of the ‘men at the mansion’ who must, after all, find it pretty convenient to see works of literature that seek actively to question our current code of values and their impact upon our planet dismissed as a bunch of hacks writing about aliens.

The solution, for serious writers, is to stop hammering on the mansion door and have a look at what’s going on beyond the electronic barrier fence.

The serious fiction about climate change Ghosh is seeking is in plentiful supply, growing in breadth and complexity all the time. If only Ghosh could shift the goalposts of his ‘seriousness’, he would see that immediately.

(If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the out-house writing ghost stories.)

#weird2016: Lanark by Alasdair Gray

lanark-gray“What’s worth saying, three decades on, is that Lanark , in common with all great books, is still, and always will be, an act of resistance. It is part of the system of whispers and sedition and direct communion, one voice to another, we call literature. Its bravery in finding voice, in encouraging the enormous power of public, national, artistic, sexual and political imagination, is not something to take for granted.”

(Janice Galloway, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Us‘, The Guardian 2002)

In the Epilogue to Lanark, which can be found somewhere towards the latter quarter of this behemoth text, Gray directly references both Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon – ‘mostly conversations between disappointed Socialists’ – as key influences upon the novel. As Darkness at Noon, which I read at least four times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, was the work that most influenced me away from dogmatic socialism, and 1984, which I read for the first time probably in the very same year I first read Darkness at Noon, was one of the key works that introduced me to the vast radical intellectual potential of science fiction, Gray’s direct-to-reader irruption into his own novel raised more than a frisson of fellow feeling.

Lanark is so much more than this, though – so much more than excited underlining of key passages and thinking bloody hell, this could have been written yesterday. Interwoven with and inseparable from the blistering political commentary on our own times – and yes, Lanark truly is so prescient, so relevant to today’s political crisis it feels newly minted – are passages of such emotional and imaginative power they raise the whole from the merely important to the truly great.

I loved this book. Lanark is the kind of novel one emerges from with a renewed and evangelical appreciation of what writing is for.

*

In his engaging and candid introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Lanark, the novelist William Boyd describes his first encounter with the monster – he was commissioned to review it for the TLS when it was first published – and recalls his confusion regarding the novel’s fantastical elements:

“I know now why I didn’t respond with wholehearted enthusiasm to the allegorical story of Lanark in the city of Unthank. I was positioning myself, as all writers unconsciously do – and particularly as a first novelist whose first novel had just been published — using criticism of others to evaluate and proclaim what I myself stood for. I was and am a realistic novelist and I felt strongly then that fable, allegory, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism and the rest were not my literary cup of tea.  But I think that in my 1981 review I unconsciously prefigured aspects of my recent, late reading of the book.  The structure of Lanark – the small naturalistic novel embedded in a large eclectic one – is, it seems to me now, precisely the reason for the book’s enduring success.  I realize now that, for Alasdair Gray, the last thing on earth he wanted to achieve in Lanark was to write, and be hailed for writing, ‘a minor classic of the literature of adolescence’…[That] could never have been enough: every ambition that Gray had for his long-gestating book obliged him to create something larger, more complex, more difficult, more alienating. Gray needed the overarching machinery of allegory and fable to make Lanark transcend its origins.”

A fair enough analysis, one might think, and at least experience has brought Boyd a deeper understanding of Gray’s intentions. Yet – like so many writers and critics who disdain the fantastic or at the least entertain grave suspicions about its fitness to be included within the canon of ‘great literature’ – we still see Boyd stumbling about, stubbing his toe on concepts such as ‘allegory’ and ‘fable’, reminding us in the process of much of the inept debate that attended the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant just a year or two ago.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to view Lanark in terms of it being split into two ‘realistic’ books and two ‘science fiction’ books. The point and the glory of Lanark – and of much of the greatest science fiction – is that the two are inseparable. One of the most powerful passages in the entire novel – Duncan Thaw’s descent into madness at the end of the ‘realistic’, Glasgow-set Book 4 – bleeds seamlessly into the wire and workings of the nightmarish dystopia of Glasgow’s shadow-self, the city of Unthank. Thaw is Lanark, Lanark Thaw. There is little to be gained in seeking to pigeonhole them and certainly not clarity. Towards the end of this sequence, Glasgow begins to morph very visibly into Unthank: the scant trickle of river, the towering municipal building, the ‘tomb-rotten pile’ of the necropolis:

He remembered a stone-built city of dark tenements and ornate public buildings, a city with a square street plan and electric tramcars…but below a starless sky this city was coldly blazing. Slim poles as tall as the spire cast white light upon the lanes and looping bridges of another vast motorway. On each side shone glass and concrete towers over twenty floors high with lights on top to ward off aeroplanes. Yet this was Unthank, though the old streets between towers and motor lanes had a half-erased look, and blank gables stood behind spaces cleared for car parks.

There is a sense of utter desolation and loss, the sense of life and creative freedom slipping away under the foul iron hand of central planning, monetary imperatives, coercive control.  When talks are prepared and essays are written about the key works of social science fiction written in Britain over the past hundred years – works that have come to define our science fiction century – we are all used to hearing about Brave New World and 1984, Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr Moreau. We are less used to hearing about Lanark. which seems to me to be a dire and almost laughable oversight. Lanark is a towering achievement in terms of its creative expression, its social comment but also its science fiction. Gray seizes the levers of science fiction with an uncanny natural ability, driving the machine forward with instinct and purpose. Gray is no science fiction tourist. He makes himself a part of the conversation not by covertly seeking admittance but by barrelling into the room and raising a storm. His science fiction feels intense and sophisticated – a polemic in the European tradition of argument-making and ideas-formation – and yet at the same time urgent, rough-hewn, so raw it is bloody.

*

Again and again, Duncan/Lanark finds himself crushed beneath the absolute incompatibility of creativity and capitalism, freedom of thought and the money-making impulse. At its heart, Lanark is a portrait of the artist as a young man – another of the key texts referenced directly by Gray in his crafty (and very funny – Lanark is funny, folks) Epilogue.  As every serious artist before him, Duncan Thaw has first to win the trust and admiration of the system before rejecting it utterly:

“This exam is endangering an important painting. It would be blasphemy to waste my talent making frivolous decorations for a non-existent liner. But I see your difficulty. You must uphold the art school, while I am upholding art. The solution is simple. Do not award me this diploma. I promise not to feel offended. The diploma is useless, except to folk who want to be teachers.”

This realisation – that like every great artist he is essentially on his own in uncharted territory – is both exhilarating and terrifying. In one of my favourite passages in Lanark, Duncan Thaw feels furious with an art school assignment – ‘Washing Day’ – for being so tame, so lacking in relevance, that he is minded not to attempt it. Then he finds himself swept along, subverting the notion of quaintness in a stark, ecstatic expression of his own vision, his own Glasgow:

His pen paused above the page then descended and sketched the tree on Sauchiehall Lane, making it larger, and leafless, and among the tenements and back greens of Riddrie. Around it three dwarfish housewives were stretching ropes between iron clothes poles, and he drew them from a memory of a home help who had looked after the house while his mother was dying. They wore headscarves, men’s boots, and big aprons covered their chests and skirts giving them a sexless, surgical look. At the top of the picture the tree’s highest branch stuck into a strip of sky among the tenement chimneys. He remembered a Blake engraving of a grey ocean with an arm sticking out of a wave, the hand clutching at the empty sky. Another Blake engraving showed a tiny pair of lovers watching a small frenzied figure set foot on a ladder so thin and high that the top rested in the sickle of a moon. A caption said, “I want! I want!” Thaw drew a moon in the sky above the treetop.

*

Lanark is a simple and in some ways familiar story: a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the years after the second world war discovers he is unlike other boys, that he loves reading and painting. To the consternation of his parents and teachers, he refuses to let his creative ambition be defined by the demands of a system geared towards making money. Thaw goes to college and there begins to find friends who are at least partially of the same mind, though his continuing difficulties in forming relationships with the opposite sex, coupled with chronic illness and an obsessive, irascible temperament, combine to plunge him into a spiral of depression and poor physical health from which he fails ultimately to escape. Thaw dies tragically, in a kind of accidental suicide, and then seems to pass into a hell that proves to be nothing more than a starker, darker portrayal of the world he has left.

Is Unthank one of Duncan’s murals, a kind of John Martin-like vista of horror revealing the corruption and wrongheadedness of the contemporary political landscape? Is Unthank a warning – a doomsday scenario – or merely an accurate depiction of the world as we currently experience it? Alasdair Gray’s Lanark has been described as the novel that kickstarted the Scottish literary renaissance – James Kelman, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh all cite him as a life-changing influence. Scotland’s makar, Jackie Kay, insists that it was meeting and talking with Alasdair Gray as a teenager that gave her the confidence to think of herself as ‘a writer’. We should also note that it was an Englishman and a science fiction writer – Anthony Burgess – who first hailed Lanark as ‘a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom’.

Lanark is important to Scotland, important to science fiction, important to modernism. It is novels of of such passionate ambition that reinvigorate the whole idea of literature for a new generation. Some of them – Lanark, for example – will continue to do so, for one generation after another.

The Clarke Award, the Spiders, and The Thing Itself

dingansich.robertsOf all the novels on this year’s Clarke submissions list, one of the most thought-provoking, intellectually ambitious and brilliantly executed must surely be Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself. I hadn’t read this the last time I posted here about the Clarke Award, but I did shortly afterwards, and it seemed to me that here was everything British SF excels at. In its disgruntled, vaguely loser-ish protagonist seeking answers to dangerous questions, I couldn’t help but be reminded in a roundabout way of Rudi, the reluctant hero of Dave Hutchinson’s Clarke-shortlisted Europe In Autumn from the year before. A similarly distinctive, dare I say British irony was present, too, a shit-what-now?? tone of voice that works as the British answer to the slacker narrative, only with added fuck-you. Like Europe in Autumn, The Thing Itself is a very funny book, equally because of and in spite of its serious subject matter – once again, an approach that British writers seem to excel at.

And yet Roberts goes further. Here is a novel that starts out riffing heavily off John Carpenter’s landmark movie The Thing but with a Red Dwarf vibe (there is a hilarious sequence concerning the bartering of a letter that is worth the cover price in and of itself, and recalls the dysfunctional relationship between Lister and Rimmer to the life) that morphs into a sinister techno-thriller and ends up as a scholarly meditation on life, the universe and everything. The thing itself, in fact. Interspersed with this twistiest of ongoing narratives, we have historical vignettes showcasing descriptive writing of a power and beauty Roberts only rarely allows himself to indulge in but clearly excels at. These stories within stories are rich in detail, evocative of time and period, and without exception deeply moving. That they turn out to be anything but tangential to the central storyline is just one of the joys awaiting the reader who lets this extraordinary book into their life. I’m not going to do the boring thing here, i.e fold my arms huffily and mutter questions to the house about why the hell was this novel not at the very least shortlisted for this year’s Clarke Award, because that would seem like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. But its omission does beggar the imagination, nonetheless.

Shortly after this year’s shortlist was announced, Roberts made a comment on one of Martin Petto’s interesting and highly relevant series of blog posts on the subject of the Clarke Award, in which he put forward a personal vision of what, in fact, the Clarke should be ‘for’:

“Namely I do think SF should be doing philosophy, and metaphysics…and indeed that the genre should be doing other things too: theology, for instance (though that probably is just me); law; economics: by ‘doing’ I mean extrapolating and dramatising and thought-experimenting and playing with… So, for example Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty was a book about ‘doing’ economics as SF which was really interesting, and promising, and thought-provoking. But nobody seems to be following it up.

People say that awards should be jumping off points for genre ‘conversation’, and so they should. But that conversation needs to be about more than just ‘meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF’, and it should definitely be about more than prize committee procedure. If, that is, and as people are saying in this thread, we want the genre to remain vital.”

That The Thing Itself more than amply fulfils its author’s own vision for science fiction goes without saying – to paraphrase, Roberts takes one of the most famous dictums in Western philosophy and makes a speculative novel out of it, a novel that gives us adventure and relatable characters, even a frisson of terror, AND writing that could stand beside anything submitted for this year’s Booker, AND a philosophical underpinning genetically merged, Brundlefly-like, with an original and ingenious science fictional conceit. Which makes it all the more concerning to read what Roberts has to say about his own perceived lack of recognition in a piece at his blog, posted the day after the announcement of this year’s Clarke Award at a ceremony last Wednesday:

“In the larger sense of ‘SF’ in the round, my failure is a non-event, the very definition of a self-correcting issue—for if what I do mattered to SF then it wouldn’t fail, QED. The genre is currently in a place of rude strength and promise, and whether I personally succeed or fail is a perfect irrelevance to that. The only way in which it might be relevant is as an object lesson for other writers, and especially up-and-coming or would-be writers. A small constituency, but not an unimportant one. And as far as that goes, the moral is presumably: don’t do as I do. I’d boil this down to: don’t write novels that stray too far from the median of SF-Fan interest: don’t be too pretentious or clever-clever, don’t try to be too ostentatiously experimental or oddball. Of course, by the same token, I urge you: don’t be too middle-of-the-road or bland, don’t set out to write sell-out commercial pap. It’s a balance, as in so many things. Try to orient yourself—as I have, frankly, failed to do—in terms of where the genre is, and where it’s going.”

We can only hope that Roberts’s words here are front-loaded with at least a modicum of the irony that must count as one of his defining literary characteristics, because taken as it stands his advice is, to put no finer point on it, cobblers. Indeed I can think of no better advice to the ambitious writer of speculative fiction than to simply take Roberts’s words above and reverse their meaning: do do as Roberts does. Do write novels that stray far (very far) from the median of SF-fan interest: do dare to be pretentious and clever, do please for God’s sake try to be ostentatiously experimental or oddball. One of the joys of being involved in science fiction is ‘the conversation’, that thing that happens between writers, critics and fans when they discuss how science fiction’s past impacts (or not) on its future, how a new work may be a direct commentary on an older work, what the SF project ‘means’. A lot of the stuff that has a lasting impact though? Stuff that makes a kerfuffle. Writers who are perfectly aware of what’s gone before but who choose actively to give it the finger. It’s called evolutionary mutation, and it’s what keeps all art forms – not just science fiction – alive and relevant.

What Roberts goes on to say about the need for writers to promote themselves by showing up at cons and ‘pressing the flesh’, as he puts it, is also misguided. By all means, go to conventions if you enjoy them, they can be a lot of fun and there’s no doubt that they can be a useful way of making contacts. But we should never forget that for some writers, conventions are the very devil: exhausting, ephemeral, and most of all a distraction from the thing that matters most in being a writer, that is, an intense and sustained focus on one’s own work. In the end, it doesn’t actually matter two hoots what anyone else is doing. The thing itself is to articulate one’s own ambition, one’s own literary aims and subjective concerns – through writing. If the writing is the best you can make it, the rest will follow. That the timescale of success is often unfairly protracted is a pain in the arse, and occasionally dispiriting, but ultimately – insofar as literature is concerned – irrelevant.

None of this is to brush Roberts’s sense of disappointment aside. It is a matter of mystery and consternation to me that Roberts’s last three novels in particular, which are so clearly at the vanguard of the British SF project, have not been recognised by Clarke juries, especially when a more than comfortable number of those books that have been recognised in their stead have been so derivative. That Adam has not been invited as Guest of Honour to any of our conventions is not just a mystery, it is a ludicrous oversight and should be a matter of acute embarrassment for the entire SF community. One can only hope that this situation will be set to rights at the earliest opportunity.

Is science fiction, as Roberts contends, in a state of rude health? I would say yes. Never has science fiction been so pervasive, so present in popular culture and across all media. In the past decade especially we have seen science fiction exert a zeitgeist-defining impact on all branches and sects of literature, bringing to the forefront of public consciousness ideas, concepts, fears, hopes and concerns – not to mention forms of expression both digital and analogue – that were previously barely admissible as subject matter for serious fiction. Whether our science fiction awards adequately reflect that rude health is more open to question. Of course, we should never forget the sheer arbitrariness of awards, and I’m not just talking about fan awards. When it comes down to it, what is a juried award but five people in a room, arguing the case for their favourite books according to their own personal taste. Those people are not infallible, they’re not gods, and should therefore not themselves be judged too harshly for the decisions they happen to make in any given year.

What we all can affect though is the climate around an award. It seems to me that the climate around the Clarke has begun to shift, not towards ‘bad books’ but towards a centrist, conservative (not in the political sense but in the literary sense), broadly commercial view of science fiction: familiar tropes, satisfactory plots, median, unfrightening writing. Works that would not have looked out of place on a shortlist from twenty years ago, in other words. Much of the most interesting and progressive work is being ignored.

Is this shift towards the bland, towards the unprovoking at least partly down to the increasingly close, not to say incestuous association between reviewers and publishers, writers and fans, science fiction literature and its media counterparts? If I were to say yes, that would be an assertion made out of gut feeling rather than as the result of any concrete, gathered evidence. What I do know though is that a climate in which the directorship of a literary award does not seem to understand the value of literary criticism and intellectually engaged discussion around that award – to find it threatening, even – a climate in which certain online factions seriously put forward the argument that rigorous examination of a text might be seen as ‘unconstructive’ or even bullying is at best laughable, at worst severely damaging for our critical hinterland. Does this climate of wholesale, unexamined approbation eventually boil down to bland shortlists? I couldn’t possibly comment, but it does seem to me that any jury whose main criterion for selection would appear to be ‘did I enjoy reading this book?’ is unlikely to give us a shortlist to shake the firmament.

For a more succinct appraisal of the overall tenor of this year’s award, I children.of.timemight point you towards From Couch to Moon’s excellent and insightful Clarke summary post, Surface, Contrivance, & Salience, in which she suggests that ‘perhaps most indicative of the mood surrounding the 2016 Clarke Award shortlist is that most of the discussion is about the Clarke Award itself, rather than the mostly baffling list of novels the jury selected this year’. One of the most heart-warming sights you can hope to see in SFF is that of a genuine and warm-hearted writer in full-on gobsmacked mode as they step forward to receive an award they clearly did not expect to win. I have not read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, but the commentary around it suggests that it is flawed but interesting, an exploration of some fascinating ideas within a context that, while largely familiar in terms of its science fiction, is distinct unto itself and seriously intended. There is nothing remotely to disqualify a book like Children of Time from winning the Clarke Award – indeed, there will be many who will argue that Tchaikovsky’s novel is the most overtly ‘Clarkeian’ winner in some years. Great – and I say that entirely without irony. But I would be even happier for Adrian if his novel had been forced to argue its position, its interpretation of the SF project against some more aggressively dissimilar standpoints, if it had arisen from a shortlist offering more robust competition.

If it had been up against The Thing Itself, for example, or Matthew de Abaitua’s equally achieved If Then, Anne Charnock’s needle-fine and determinedly questing Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind.  You will notice that all three of the novels I’ve cited here are what would be broadly defined as being ‘of SF’, i.e they are written unironically as science fiction novels, not as metaphorical ‘pirating’ of science fictional concepts to illustrate mainstream literary ends. Earlier in the season, Paul McAuley posted an interesting essay at his blog in which he explored the meaning and merit of these opposing constructs, but his veering towards a bipartite ‘literary versus genre’ model runs the risk of driving the argument into a cul-de-sac. As Adam Roberts insists above, the conversation needs to be about more than meat-and-potatoes SF versus literary SF. We already know that beautiful prose is not the sole prerogative of so-called ‘literary’ writers – writers such as Sofia Samatar, Lucius Shepard, Chip Delany, Michael Swanwick, Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller all sit firmly within the genre and have given us some of the most poetically stylish prose around. We already know that beautiful prose is not the point – because articulacy, originality, seriousness and literary daring can be clothed in whatever kind of language the writer wants to use. And because beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. To insist, as McAuley seems to, that ‘great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as literary fiction’ equally begs the question: by which standards then should they be judged? I’m intrigued by McAuley’s definition of science fiction as a literature that, ‘rather than exploring reality…is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it’s interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It’s about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference’. As a starting point for discussion, this analysis is valid and useful. But when it comes to arriving at a consensus as to how well a particular text has fulfilled its brief not simply as science fiction but as a novel, then surely we must judge it by the same standards as we might judge, say, Eleanor Catton’s Booker-prizewinning novel The Luminaries. We would be letting it off the hook otherwise, making allowances. I would argue that the greatest science fiction needs no allowances made.

As noted above, there seems little point in rehashing what might have been, but surely we must seriously ask ourselves where to now? What can be done to drive the Clarke Award in a more challenging and innovative direction? One could argue nothing – when all is said and done, it’s just five people in a room picking their favourite books. One could equally argue that it’s not just up to the judges, it’s up to everyone who cares about science fiction and the science fiction conversation to ensure that the climate around the award is not just roundly, blandly enthusiastic but also knowledgeable, questioning, engaged, and yes, argumentative and occasionally contentious, a climate in which debate is not just grudgingly tolerated but warmly encouraged and even (gasp) promoted.

Would it help if the jury had a more precise remit, something along the lines of the Kitschies’ ‘most entertaining, progressive and intelligent’ as opposed to the diffuse and catch-all ‘best’ that currently heads the Clarke’s submissions guidelines? It’s an idea.

Would it be useful if jury members could – again, like the Kitschies judges – be selected from across a wider demographic instead of just the BSFA, SciFi London and SF Foundation memberships, many of whose most experienced critics have already served their maximum two terms? It’s an idea.

Would it perhaps also be an idea to have a division of labour between the person responsible for the commercial directorship of the award – I don’t think anyone would deny that the current incumbent, Tom Hunter, has been highly motivated and successful in this role – and an appointed ‘artistic director’, a science fiction ambassador who could be responsible for blogging the award, commissioning articles, collating reviews and commentary, liaising with convention committees to promote discussion around the award in general and the shortlisted books in particular? Again, it’s something worth thinking about.

2016 has been hailed as the year that the Clarke Award committed itself to opening up the award to self-published writers. This has been couched in such a way as to make it appear as a radical and dynamic step towards making the Clarke Award more diverse and inclusive. To my mind, it’s a bit of a sideshow, a move that at best achieves precisely nothing, and at worst bulks up an already hefty submissions list with substandard work. It is interesting to note that the two works put forward as justification for this new policy, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Jeff Noon’s Channel Skin, both provide deft examples of precisely these two scenarios. The Chambers book was picked up by a commercial imprint (Hodder) less than twelve months after its original appearance as a self-published work, thus making it eligible within the normal remit the following year anyway (when, as we all know, it made its way directly to the shortlist). The Noon book, whilst demonstrating a wealth of original ideas and imagery, did not read like a fully worked out novel – more like notes for a novel – and one can easily understand how, even with Noon’s name attached, it would have struggled to find a publisher willing to go in to bat for it.  Jeff Noon exudes ideas like perspiration (not the most glamorous of images, but given Noon’s fondness for bio-SF I’m sticking with it) and it’s fantastic to see him back in contract again with Angry Robot – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see A Man of Shadows in hot contention for the 2018 Clarke. But Channel Skin? Noon is a one-off case anyway. The truer fact remains that any self-published novel worthy of consideration is going to get picked up for wider distribution sooner or later (Chambers, Weir, Howey, Charnock), and whilst the independent press is becoming an ever-more-valuable proving ground for emerging writers, I really cannot see the value in opening the Clarke to self-published works that have been subject to little if any objective scrutiny en route to ‘publication’, where for the vast majority of novels that fall into this category, publication = printing but nothing more.

A move that’s good for grabbing the headlines then, but of little practical value beyond that moment.

The greatest thing about this year’s Clarke Award has been the debate it has engendered, and at this point I would like to express my appreciation of From Couch to Moon, Tomcat in the Red Room, Gareth Beniston, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jonah Sutton-Morse, Paul McAuley and most especially Abigail Nussbaum for their marvellous and inspiring contributions to those discussions. You can find links to all their reviews and summations at the (equally brilliant) Martin Petto’s blog, here. It is writing like this, thinking like this, that will continue to ensure not just the longevity of the award but its literary relevance. Without the people who argue the toss, an award is nothing, just one more cocktail party in the publishing calendar. Let’s keep it coming.

Nail, head.

TheCrossing.Miller“I had believed in fiction as a uniquely powerful way of speaking the truth about experience. I had believed that it was, like art in general, necessary, and that a society with no interest in reading serious fiction (serious meaning done with care, with love) was in some way damaged or on its way to being so. None of that, I realised, had really changed. What I had believed at 17 I still, by and large, thought true. But now there was something else going on, a chilly countercurrent, a hard-to-pin-down sense of frustration that seemed to organise itself around the idea that fiction – in novels, in films, on television – had become more competent than interesting, more decorative than urgent, more conventional than otherwise. I picked up novels and put them down again. They were not badly written, not at all, but after a page or two I felt I knew them, knew what, at the deeper level, they were up to. I slid off their surfaces. I struggled to care. I had precisely the same difficulty with my own work. Projects started; projects abandoned. Was this writer’s block? Or was it a hazy recognition that there might be some problem with “traditional narrative”? A set of assumptions that had become almost invisible but that shaped what we wrote?”

In a fascinating piece in The Guardian, novelist Andrew Miller writes about the problem of fiction in a way that is striking a particularly resonant chord with me right now. Is the manufactured, anodyne quality of so much of today’s fiction in some way a mirror to the political situation in which we now find ourselves? The literature of disengagement ultimately signalling a crisis-of-everything? These are some of the questions I’m thinking about – along with are we now reaching the end of the current political era?  I will certainly be reading Andrew Miller’s latest novel, The Crossing, which sounds pretty special and if it gets a good review from Kate Clanchy – who never pulls her punches – then that’s good enough for me.