Category Archives: writing

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.

#weird2016: ‘The Devil is in the Coincidence’: two American horror stories

TL;DR: Buy these books. Read them now.

AHFOG.TremblayThe first indication that anything is wrong in the lives of the two sisters in Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts is when the older girl, Marjorie, begins telling scary stories. Meredith, known to everyone as Merry, is used to playing story-games with her beloved big sister, but she’s never heard anything like this before. Instead of adapting fairy tales in her usual manner, Marjorie tells Merry all about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. When Merry, horrified, asks her if the story is something she found on the internet, Marjorie insists the details of the disaster were lodged inside her all along:

‘I don’t know. I woke up yesterday and just sort of knew the story, like it was something that’s always been there in my head. Stories are like that sometimes, I think. Even real ones. And I know this one was a horrible, terrible, no-good story, but I – I can’t stop thinking about it, you know? I wonder what it was like to be there, what it was like to be Maria, to see and smell and hear and feel what she felt right that second before the wave got her. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well, but I just wanted to tell you, Merry. I wanted to share it with you. Okay?’

Later that same day, there is a disturbing scene at the dinner table when Marjorie and her mother Sarah start talking about an ‘appointment’ that Merry knows nothing about. The girls’ father, David, insists they say grace – something else that has never happened before. We learn that David has recently lost his job, that the whole family has been under stress as a result. But it soon becomes obvious that more sinister forces are at work here, something to do with Marjorie, and that the adults are increasingly in conflict over what to do about it. Sarah feels sure that her daughter is suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that the conventional methods – medical treatment and psychiatric counselling – are the best way forward. David, with time on his hands and resentment brewing, has come to believe that his daughter’s sickness is the devil’s work, that a demon is living inside her and that the only way to dislodge it is through God’s intercession. He begins consulting a priest, Father Wanderley, who offers the Barratts a way forward, an opportunity to remove the demon and rid themselves of their financial worries at the same time. Against her better judgement, Sarah agrees. As the atmosphere inside the house darkens, and the truth about what is going on becomes ever more confused, Marjorie herself seems desperate to communicate her predicament to the only person she still trusts – her sister Merry:

‘I’m not well, Merry. I don’t mean to frighten you, I’m sorry… You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are – there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say “okay”.’

Marjorie’s terrifying experiences are brilliantly conveyed at one remove. Because Merry is only a child, she finds it difficult to tell where fantasy begins and reality leaves off. Eight-year-old Merry barely understands how bad the situation really is – but her older self knows, and as Tremblay has skilfully interwoven the first-hand observations of child-Merry with the insights of Merry-grown-up, we as readers are better able to appreciate the ambiguity of what actually occurred. These narrative sections are intercut with two extended interjections from a horror blogger, detailing and analysing the TV series based around the events at the Barratt home. That Tremblay’s fictional horror fan carries the same name as a real blogger and is liberally based – with her full consent – around her online personality is a further breaking of the fourth wall in a novel that is continually inventive and surprising, playing with our expectations and then subverting them again. There is no doubt that Tremblay is fully in command of his genre materials. He is also a very good writer. A Head Full of Ghosts has everything one could wish for in a horror novel, keeping faith with the tenets of the genre whilst remaining fully aware of itself as a literary entity:

I wondered what [this Father Wanderley] looked like. Was he young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat? Then I focussed on more particular and peculiar details, like what if he had big knuckles on his hands, or what if one leg was shorter than the other. Could he touch the tip of his nose with his tongue like my friend Cara could? Did he like pickles on his cheeseburgers? Did his smile crinkle up the skin around his eyes? Would he yawn if he watched me yawn? What did his voice sound like that Dad would like him so much?

It is this intricate level of characterisation that is missing from so many generic horror novels, much to their detriment. And it is largely due to writing like this – vivid, imaginative, grounded as hell – that Tremblay’s novel remains genuinely frightening right the way to the end. We’re scared because we care, because Tremblay’s skill as a writer has allowed us to entirely suspend our disbelief. That he keeps us guessing about the truth even beyond the final page is the icing on the cake.

It is impossible to read this novel and not think of The Exorcist, but Tremblay utilises his references so cogently, so knowingly, that they are definitively a feature and not a bug. As Catriona Ward’s recent debut Rawblood makes use of classic gothic tropes to create a novel that is simultaneously traditional and thoroughly modern in its affect and scope, so A Head Full of Ghosts turns its spotlight upon the works, themes and imagery of the 1970s/80s horror boom to reveal a multilayered metafiction that is also wholly satisfying as story. Those readers who are unreasonably devoted to the current North American horror scene will no doubt enjoy checking off the personages Tremblay has chosen to name-check – Stephen Graham Jones and Ian Rogers turn up in unexpected places, as does a certain Dr Navidson, whilst Tremblay also nods to himself in the mirror in passing – but for those with healthier reading habits, these self-referential games will neither impede nor intrude upon the action. It is more important to note the subtler reference, through Tremblay’s protagonist Merry, to Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another story of two troubled sisters in which a certain Merricat Blackwood proves to be a similarly unreliable narrator.

This book is a keeper, one to own in hardback if you can. And the good newsDADR.Tremblay is that Tremblay’s new novel is hardly less impressive. Another moving portrait of family life, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock deals with the aftermath of the sudden and unexplained disappearance of fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson from a patch of local wilderness known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy was a good kid, popular with his friends and loved by his family. He was doing well at school, had no known problems with drugs or alcohol, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. The friends who were with him on the night he went missing initially have no explanation for what has happened, and it is down to Tommy’s mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate, both still in shock, to delve deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s recent private life. As pages from Tommy’s journal make increasingly disturbing reference to an older boy named Arnold, so Kate in particular becomes convinced that Tommy’s friends, Luis and Josh, must know far more about Tommy’s whereabouts than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth investigates what she believes may be a physical manifestation of Tommy’s ghost. When the truth of what happened that night finally comes out, it is more tragic and more horrifying than anyone involved in the search has hitherto suspected.

This is a sad and often harrowing story, eloquently told. As the boys’ fascination with and dependency on Arnold increases, I found myself more and more reminded of a recent and tragic case in Britain in which a gifted and well-loved teenager was groomed online and finally murdered by a psychopathic youth, now serving a life sentence for the crime. Whether Tremblay knew of or was inspired by this case is finally irrelevant. What is most striking here is his intricately chilling depiction of what is essentially a seduction of the innocent by the corrupt.

When he first met Arnold, Josh had thought the whole seer shtick was exactly that, and Josh had pretended otherwise because it was fun and it was what their summer had become… Now he wasn’t so sure that there wasn’t something off or unsettling about Arnold, the repetition and sameness of their meeting place and discussions and beer drinking felt purposeful, like they were being worked on or worn down.

That Tremblay is able to give an unshrinking depiction of the monstrousness of Arnold’s deeds without simply dismissing their broken and previously abused perpetrator as a monster himself is entirely to the novel’s advantage. Tremblay’s writing shines throughout, giving a depth of characterisation and sense of place that raises Disappearance at Devil’s Rock far above the ordinary tensions of the missing-child thriller:

Allison pulls into Elizabeth’s driveway, as far up as she can go, and parks next to Janice’s car. The headlights flood her backyard. Busy moths and gnats float in the electric light above the tall and sagging grass. She shuts the car off, the spotlight disappears, and the secret nocturnal life of the backyard retreats into darkness again.

I also appreciate the fact that – as with A Head Full of Ghosts – Tremblay leaves room for Disappearance At Devil’s Rock to still be a novel of supernatural horror, if that’s the book the reader wants to be reading, thus proving once again that having literary values doesn’t mean selling out to the literary mainstream. Just because there’s a lot of schlock horror out there does not mean that horror is, by its nature, schlock.

It’s always risky to make generalisations, but if British horror fiction can be characterised as the literature of the outcast seeking its kind, it is interesting to see how we might think about American horror fiction as its polar opposite: the literature of the normal under siege. A quintessentially British horror narrative will typically feature a solitary, sometimes persecuted protagonist, seeking refuge from the world in an out-of-the-way and often creepy place, usually with uncanny results – think of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, Alison Littlewood’s A Cold Season, Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood and almost anything by Joel Lane or Robert Aickman. British horror films adhere strongly to the same template – have a look at Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (based on a story by Robert Graves) or Philip Ridley’s Heartless for examples. What we find in American horror fiction, time and time again, is the story of an ordinary family living a contented life, whose equilibrium and wellbeing is suddenly thrown off kilter by an intrusion – often a supernatural intrusion – from outside. This model is particularly prevalent in American horror cinema – we think at once of now classic movies such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, the first season of the TV drama American Horror Story and yes, The Exorcist. Reams and reams of criticism have been written about American horror cinema as a reflection of social anxiety, of post-Vietnam angst and Cold War (now post-9/11) paranoia. Much of this is interesting – see Adam Simon’s 2002 documentary The American Nightmare as an example – but whilst Paul Tremblay’s two novels do fit very snugly into the American canon of ‘bad things happening to good people’ stories, I would argue that A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock give us much more to think about than the oversimplified ‘middle classes in peril’ narratives presented by other, inferior works of horror literature and film, mainly because Tremblay writes about families and in particular teenagers from a position of deep empathy. The boys in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are captured at a moment of traumatic change, not just in their outward circumstances but in their inner being. Flaunting the behaviour of adults, they are still nonetheless just children, and thus all the more vulnerable to adult duplicity:

On the video, Josh seems like an impostor, usually so at ease and charming around adults, he is barely audible, speaks carefully in small complete sentences, at times sounding dull-witted, and is asked to repeat an answer more than once. Luis was normally such a lovable wiseass, always willing to play that teen vs adult obfuscation game, you can ask but you won’t get anything out of me, but still make you smile and shake your head at the same time. In his interview, Luis is painfully polite and (unlike Josh) eloquent, expansive and detailed in his responses.

In both novels, we see the middle class family in crisis: gathering in the living room to watch a TV news bulletin, scanning the internet for clues, sending out for Chinese food because no one can summon the energy to cook, deferring instinctively to the police in all matters. Teenagers put in their headphones, blocking out stress and unwelcome instructions with the sound of music. Above all, each person migrates to their own room, staking out a defined piece of private territory as a means of survival. This is crisis behaviour we all recognise, practised by people who feel disempowered, in thrall to an often ineffectual authority, bludgeoned by information yet unable to extract anything of use or significance from it, reduced to being onlookers in their own lives. We do not scorn or laugh at these people, because we are these people. Tremblay makes it easy for us to feel their distress, because what he has in fact painted is a pretty convincing picture of our own worst nightmares. When something bad happens, what is there left for us to do but retreat online and wait?

#weird2016: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

furnace.llSomewhere in the real world, the merchant bolts the second choice to her flesh, using living metals that flicker as they vibrate between one dimension and the next. The pain lightning-strikes its way up her torso, and the roots of the metal object follow like rivers of mercury, burrowing into her brain. He is welding her to a darker universe. When he is finished, he says, her body will be a pipeline to hell. 

He’s not opening a gate, Wasp thinks as she grimaces and howls. He’s just widening the road. (‘Wasp and Snake’)

This short extract from ‘Wasp and Snake’ exemplifies everything that is both excellent and disappointing in Llewellyn’s second collection, all the ways in which it has proved – for this reader at least – inferior to her first. ‘Wasp and Snake’ opens brilliantly. A woman strikes a devil’s bargain with some kind of hellish engineer of body and soul – shades of Clive Barker’s Cenobites – and sallies forth on an equally devilish mercenary mission: to assassinate a named target and claim her reward. The language involved in telling this story is as gorgeously rich and decadent as anything we previously encountered in Llewellyn’s debut, Engines of Desire. The story, though, proves a bit of a let-down: the denouement too simple and too pat for its elaborate and compelling set-up. We find ourselves wishing it had been more complicated, that the characters had been given a broader stage to act upon. Our disappointment is especially acute given our suspicion that, had ‘Wasp and Snake’ belonged to the era of Engines of Desire, they would have been.

I unequivocally loved Engines of Desire. I admired Llewellyn’s considerable ability with language, her obvious love for the horror genre, her willingness to take risks in bending it to her will. I found ‘Horses’ to be one of the most genuinely upsetting pieces of short fiction I’d ever read, Her Deepness to be a profound reordering of Lovecraftian tropes into a feminist Mythos, stories like ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Omphalos’ brilliant in their perplexing ambiguities.

Llewellyn is a gift to horror, a writer of seriously exceptional abilities. As such, her second collection Furnace was one of my most-anticipated books of 2016. How sad I was to discover that, in spite of some glorious writing at the sentence level, Furnace is a collection defined above all by a quality of sameness, of reiteration, by stories that feel less driven by the unpredictable internal impulses of the writer and more produced in response to the external demands of a horror market hungry for a repetition of earlier success.

There comes a point in the career of every promising new horror writer when they begin to receive more anthology invites than they can possibly fulfil. The thrill of having editors ask you for work is undeniable, but the truth is you have to learn to say no, at least sometimes. If you do not say no, then you will see more personal projects placed on the back burner as you find yourself subject to a forever advancing accumulation of story deadlines, your subject matter and direction increasingly moulded by the arbitrary dictates of themed anthologies. Rather than pushing yourself to try new things, you’ll be desperately seeking out yet another variation on the Lovecraft story, the zombie story, the alien invasion story.

It is a treadmill I suspect few on the consuming end of such anthologies ever guess at. But it exists. Thus the collections that eventually appear formed from stories produced primarily for themed anthologies have the rag-bag feel of compilations rather than studio albums. If you’re a Spotify kind of person this might not matter to you. If you are someone who regularly buys CDs and listens to albums in track order, it matters a great deal.

The quality of the writing in Furnace is unerringly consistent and usually very high. And – don’t get me wrong – the collection does contain some standout stories. The action of ‘Cinereous’, for example, takes place in Paris in the year 1799, and tells the story of one Olympe Leon, a young woman who, through her assistance at the site of some brutal and bizarre experiments, hopes to secure her fame as a pioneer in the field of human biology. It’s a brilliant conceit, so disturbing one is forced to look away at certain points (surely the highest compliment for a horror writer) and one would never guess at its origins in an anthology of zombie stories. Similarly ‘Yours is the Right to Begin’ might be described as an ardent love poem to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whilst at the same time augmenting and even transcending its source material. Both ‘Allocthon’ and ‘Furnace’ showcase themes of corrupted, static, male-dominated societies and women’s discontent and horror at their position within them. ‘Allocthon’ in particular reads like a horrific car crash between Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The Ligottian claustrophobia of ‘Furnace’ highlights the tensions between mother and daughter, a theme enlarged upon in ‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’, although this latter is a less original story, too clear a reiteration perhaps of Llewellyn’s earlier story ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’. As a portrait of suburbia gone to the devil, ‘It Feels Better Biting Down’ is more surreal and more original.

But while I loved ‘Panopticon’ for the glimpse it afforded of Llewellyn’s Lovecraftian megalopolis Obsidia, I found ‘Lord of the Hunt’ and ‘In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982’ – Llewellyn’s language aside – to be pretty run of the mill Mythos variants. ‘Wasp and Snake’, as mentioned previously, is ended before it’s properly begun. whilst ‘The Unattainable’, although it does bring a feminist twist to the traditionally male-dominated cowboy story, is otherwise a fairly pointless piece of mild erotica. Least successful of all is ‘Stabilimentum’ – a tale of urban alienation that takes so little account of actual spider behaviour that it was never going to win many brownie points with me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories, and anyone coming to Livia Llewellyn – or indeed horror literature – for the first time will no doubt find plenty to entertain and freak them out. Speaking for myself though, I missed the longer, more obviously personal stories that so brilliantly characterised Llewellyn’s first collection, and while her writing is clearly in rude – in every sense of the word – health, I for one am hoping that her next outing will provide a deeper and more complex statement of her future intent.

Clarke discussions ongoing

“Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.” 

This from Jonathan McCalmont’s Thought Projections 2, which (scroll towards the bottom of the page) includes a substantial rumination on the current state of the critical hinterland of genre literature. A more robust and well articulated grasp of the situation would be hard to imagine, and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these matters to read McCalmont’s piece in its entirety.

Meanwhile,  critic and former Clarke juror Martin Petto has been gathering his own thoughts in a series of posts on the structure and administration of the award, the composition and reception of its shortlists, and how the Clarke functions as a barometer of British SF publishing. Parts 1 and 2 are already up and well worth your time.

EDIT: Add to the above this wonderful post by Gareth Beniston at Dancing on Glass. Almost gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it..?

#weird2016: Red Shift by Alan Garner

red shift garnerThe motorway roared silently. Birds skittered the water in flight to more distant reeds, and the iron water lay again, flat light reflecting no sky. The caravans and the birches. Tom.

Sometimes you read a novel that generates such a personal response – that feels so profoundly, so intimately yours – it’s hard to articulate. It’s a feeling of blessed serendipity, like stumbling across something in the road, something half-buried in dirt, and discovering it’s that treasured thing you lost some years before and thought never to see again.

As a reader and as a writer, these are the moments you chase but can never predict.

All of this happened, in this case, because of something that did not happen. When I was asked if I’d like to be on a panel at Eastercon discussing the landscapes of Alan Garner’s fiction. I regretfully had to decline, stating that aside from stumbling upon and loving The Owl Service – both book and TV series – when I was twelve, I hadn’t read Garner since, and really didn’t know his work except in outline. Which of course immediately set me thinking: why didn’t I, when Garner’s oeuvre, with its emphasis on landscape and myth, lies so close to a vital seam of my own literary interests?

It seemed like a major oversight to me. And so later that day, I purchased the eBook of Garner’s Red Shift, widely thought to be the cornerstone of his work and of his thinking. We happened to be travelling to London the following day, which gave me four hours’ worth of train journey in which to read the novel more or less uninterrupted, which I think is how this extraordinary book should ideally be encountered.  At a little under 200 pages, it is not a long novel. So when you learn that it was six years in the making, you might feel surprised – until you begin to experience it, and realise how intact it is, how entire unto itself, how every word contracted into this interweaving, this rope-hard tapestry, has been personally chosen and considered, how this novel – deceptively simple on the page – truly is like that found thing in the road, that axe head: clodded with dirt yet pristine, hard, like the ages, like the granite fundament of the island that inspired it.

A cursory reading of Red Shift might leave you with the impression that in its modern sections especially it is dated. It is hard to imagine many older teenagers these days getting so hung up on what their parents think, or becoming mired in ideas of sex as being sordid or sinful. Yet read – persist – and you will find there is something so heartrending, so universal in what Jan and Tom experience that it still works, in spite of its awkwardness or even because of it. It is interesting, too, that the women in Garner’s story are as powerful as the men, if not more so. It is Jan, in the end, who is able to make the transition from child to adult, a transition Tom struggles with until the end.

I found the novel’s evocation of the 1970s particularly resonant.  The sequence where Tom and Jan first discover the road to Barthomley, walking out across the railway sidings at Crewe seemed, to me, like the summer of 1976 itself: instantaneously mythical, a hush in time, a touchstone memory:

They walked through undulating country, golden with light from the cold sun. 

“That’s where I’d like to try for, one day,” said Jan. “I see it from the train, and then I know you’re near. It looks like a lonely old man sitting up there.”

“We’ll go,” said Tom. “But I doubt it’ll be today, unless you feel like running.”

“Is it a castle?”

“A folly. Not real. It’s called Mow Cop.”

“I like mountains. Can we go, even if it is only a folly?”

“Sure, I said. But how about something closer for today?”

Across the fields a red sandstone church tower stood from a valley. The landscape was quiet, scattered farms of black timber, and the lane leading towards the church. 

It is their Grand Meulnes moment, instantly in decline, like radioactive half-life, from the second it is exposed to the light.

It says everything about Garner’s skill in imagining, that the novel’s strands from earlier timelines – one set in Roman Britain, one set during the English Civil War – often and increasingly appear to be running contemporaneously with the modern day section. As the novel nears its end, these time-jumps – seamless, unannounced and unaccounted-for – can occur several times in a single page. The passages describing the massacre at Barthomley, in their terrifying understatement, are a masterclass of literary economy.

What is most modern about this novel – what makes it a work of modernism – is that it offers no explanation for itself, no long-winded exposition of what is happening. We must run to catch up, to stay level. We must enter into the spirit of this thing, not caring too much if there are moments when we doubt our understanding of what is going on.

And even as Red Shift eschews objective realism in favour of a more subjective brand of expressionism, still it retains the rough-hewn, adze-sharpened, square-buttressed granite persistence of the mediaeval. Like the sinuously evolving ballads of British folklore, its abiding loyalty is to the land. We pass through it, before passing it on.

It is with eerie synchronicity that I came to Red Shift immediately after life writer constantinereading David Constantine’s acutely felt second novel The Life Writer, which shares a similar relationship with land not a million miles away from Barthomley church. It may even be that reading the Constantine, which feels intuitively closer to my own practice – Red Shift is mainly dialogue, which I don’t write much of; The Life Writer is mainly internalised reflection, which I do – actively prepared me in some way for reading the Garner.

However and whatever has happened, it feels significant for me as a writer in a way I did not anticipate.

*

Sadly, we didn’t arrive at Eastercon until gone 5.30 on the Friday, so it was too late for me to attend the Alan Garner panel even as a spectator. But what we were able to do instead, on our way back from Scotland – we spent a week in the Highlands immediately following Eastercon – was stop off at the places where the key action of Red Shift takes place. It had been raining for most of the morning, but as we drove into Cheshire the weather changed, flooding the countryside with evening sunshine. The landscape felt utterly unchanged from how it had appeared to me as I read about it in the novel. I was thrilled to the bone.

The White Lion, Barthomley

The White Lion, Barthomley

St Bertoline's Church, Barthomley

St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley

The Folly at Mow Cop

The Folly at Mow Cop

A conversation with Anne Charnock

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I’ve enjoyed and admired Anne Charnock’s first two novels, the Philip K. Dick Award- and Kitschies-shortlisted A Calculated Life, and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which was published towards the end of last year. I found A Calculated Life to be one of the most fascinating and imaginative explorations of the post-human condition that I’ve yet read, and in Sleeping Embers especially, with its interwoven narrative threads and themes of art and memory, I sensed that Anne and I shared some common interests as writers. I was therefore delighted when Anne invited me to take part in an online ‘conversation’, the aim being to examine and hopefully illuminate some hidden aspects of what we write, and how we approach our chosen subject matter. Neither an interview nor a traditional Q&A, the conversation format allowed for a more free-flowing discussion, more approximate to what you might expect in a live panel event. As we both hoped at the outset, it threw up some unexpected insights. That it was a great pleasure to ‘talk’ to Anne should go without saying.

ANNE: Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and although he gives greatACharnockPortrait copy [458685] advice throughout, I was curious about one of his comments on the subject of theme. He feels that the theme of a novel is something that emerges in the first draft or after the first draft, and can then be enhanced in subsequent reworking. But for me the theme, or concept, comes first, before I start outlining and plotting a piece of fiction. How do you view the importance of theme? Does it vary from one writing project to another?

NINA: I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it several times, just for the pleasure of King’s voice, and it’s the one book I recommend unequivocally when people ask me if ‘how to’ guides for writers are any good. As a new writer, what On Writing offered me, most of all, was the permission to do things my way. Many of the writing guides I’d read previously – and yes, I did love reading them – seemed very keen on pre-planning, on writing chapter summaries and on knowing exactly what was going to happen before you started. This made me feel nervous because I instinctively felt that those methods weren’t going to work for me. What King seemed to be saying was ‘screw that – there are no rules. Do what feels right’. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I don’t remember King’s exact words on theme versus plot – but what I do know is that for me, plot has always been the element of narrative I try to think about least consciously, particularly when I’m making a start on a new piece of work. I’ve always started with character – or to put it more precisely, with a particular character in a particular situation. I name my character – character names are very important to me as they seem to form a nest of associations all by themselves – and I think about what might be worrying them, what problems they face, how they might react, who they might know. Theme tends to arise naturally from these thoughts, and from the situation. Theme is important to me, as an anchor – as the box everything fits inside, if you like. Plot is something I have to trust will attach itself to the theme as I go along. The more I write the more the plot begins to define itself. Often I won’t know how a story is going to work itself out until I’m at least half way through. But this is why second drafts are so important to my working process. When I start my second draft, I begin writing the book again from the beginning, essentially – only this time I know where it’s going, I know what the plot entails, I know how things end. Which means I can foreground certain details, strengthen certain narrative threads. I love second drafts! They are so much less scary.

How about your drafting process? Do you like to edit on the page, refining the narrative organically as you progress, or do you write right to the end and then second-draft everything from the beginning?

ANNE: Like you, Nina, I let the narrative unfold during the drafting process. This feels more natural to me. And because I ‘feel my way’ with the narrative, I now find I’m attracted to writing in present tense, as though I’m experiencing events alongside my characters. I edit at a sentence level as I go along—which can be very slow! However, this does mean that when I reach the end of the manuscript I don’t need to redraft from the beginning. I might add a scene or move a scene. But I’m mainly fine-tuning the characters and dialogue, making ‘fixes’ to the narrative, looking for inconsistencies, fact-checking and so on.

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Throughout the drafting, I fill in a spreadsheet that summarises the narrative developments in each chapter. Sometimes the narrative develops in such a way that I know I’ll need to make adjustments in earlier chapters. I add notes on the spreadsheet to remind myself to make specific changes in the next draft. And I do enjoy this process of refinement.

In my current writing project, I’ve taken a different approach. I’m first-drafting this novel with less on-the-go editing. I’m conscious of my deadline with this project so I feel more comfortable pushing forward. I’m still keeping a spreadsheet of the narrative development, and this is really important because this novel has a highly fragmented structure. I expect I’ll write additional fragments when I’ve finished the first full draft. With each of my main characters in this novel, I’m interested in the specific events in his or her back-story that has moulded their character: nurture over nature, I suppose.

I know from your own writing, Nina, that you’re interested in fragmentation. I’d like to know what draws you to this type of structure.

the race cover (2)NINA: It’s going to be interesting for you to see how the quicker-first-draft method suits you! I imagine your spreadsheets to be a little like Nabokov’s famous index cards – a way of examining characters and events in isolation from their story. A fascinating approach.

I first encountered fragmented narratives through the work of Keith Roberts and his great novel Pavane, also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. This would have been in my mid-teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction pretty indiscriminately. Most of the stuff I read then – Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, Pohl – has fallen by the wayside for me, but both Pavane and Roadside Picnic, and their authors, remain touchstone influences. Thinking about them now, I realise that when I first read these novels I didn’t think of them as ‘fragmented narratives’, I simply accepted this method of telling a story as something that was natural and intrinsic to those books, and got on with enjoying them. And yet they made a powerful impact – something about the thrill of discovery, the way my own imagination played a vital role in linking everything together. I wouldn’t have analysed it that way at the time, but I think I found something very satisfying in the idea of the reader interacting with the writer to create a complete picture.

Fragmented narratives are often described as being complex, and of course they can be, but I happen to believe that large numbers of readers actively enjoy the element of mental participation this approach encourages. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven have found immense popular appeal. Similarly, movies such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro Inarritu’s Babel, which both involve intricately interlinking storylines, have enjoyed Oscar-winning success. I think readers can actually tolerate narrative complexity to a far greater degree than the publishing industry sometimes gives them credit for. One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because readers feel directly involved with what’s happening on the page, and I think the clue-hunting aspect of fragmented narratives performs this same function.

I loved the three-stranded structure you used in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Did the experience gained in writing this novel help you in planning this next book? You say the structure of this new novel is ‘highly fragmented’ – can you tell me how it differs from the construction of Sleeping Embers?

ANNE: Thanks, Nina. I like the comparison you make with crime fiction! I do have fun introducing clues and connections when I’m drafting a fragmented novel. I’ve always liked writers who play around with structure. So the novels that come to mind are Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, Louisa Hall’s Speak. When I start to list them—and I could list so many more—I begin to see how popular this form is among writers.

My work-in-progress already has a title—Dreams Before the Start of Time. I started drafting this novel some time ago, but I broke off to begin Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. So the influence happened in reverse; the fragmented structure of Dreams Before encouraged me to tackle Sleeping Embers as a novel set in three time periods—Renaissance, current day and twenty-second century—with the narrative oscillating between the three settings.

In contrast, Dreams Before the Start of Time is linear, moving forward from the very near future to a hundred years from now, and it follows the lives of two women who are close friends. A handful of chapters are written from their points of view, but most are told from the points of view of characters who are connected either closely or tangentially to the two women.

I don’t regard this new novel as a sequel, but one of my main characters is Toni Monroe who is a character in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. I still felt a strong connection to Toni, and her age fitted neatly with the setting of my new novel. This brings me on to say that one of my quests in writing speculative fiction is to create characters who engage the reader on an emotional level. I don’t want the reader to envisage the future in a detached way. For me, an exemplar novel—one that’s compelling in an emotional sense—is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I wondered if you could identify your own writing quest, and if there’s a single novel that would indicate your goal.

NINA: I love the sound of Dreams Before the Start of Time, and especially the idea of Toni as a continuing character. You mention David Mitchell here – a writer who is now well known for extending the life of his characters beyond the frame of a single novel – and indeed this is something I enjoy doing myself. I first experimented with recurring characters in my story cycle The Silver Wind, where the same characters crop up time and again, although not always in the same roles. (Stephen King has a lot of fun with a similar idea in his twinned novels Desperation and The Regulators, which are favourites for me amongst his work.) I’m currently working on a story that features a character from my first collection, A Thread of Truth, a character I hope to write about at greater length in a future novel.IMG_0056

As you say, it’s difficult to let go of these people sometimes!

Never Let Me Go is a fascinating choice for your ‘quest’ novel – humane and chilling and very much in the tradition of British speculative fiction – I’m thinking of novels like D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a key novel of the SF New Wave which examines anxieties about future technological development through a very human lens.

I do like this idea of having a writing quest! I suppose if I had to pin down what it is that I’m going after with my writing, it would be the preservation of memories, of moments in time, and how memory is always this peculiar and sometimes problematic blend of objective ‘truth’ and subjective worldview, which is by its nature partial, and often unreliable. I am in love with the weirdness at the heart of mimesis, and the writer who encapsulates this in her writing most perfectly of all for me is Iris Murdoch. There is something exalted about her work, a sense of heightened reality that shines a light on ordinary objects and occurrences and reveals their hidden magic – and madness. If I had to choose one of her novels to take with me to a desert island it would be The Book and the Brotherhood, which I’ve read four times already and could start reading again tomorrow with equal enjoyment.

I would pair that novel with works like The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and The Girl in the Swing by Richard Adams as examples of British Weird, a tradition that I feel is central to my own practice and allegiance. Do you think of yourself as being a particularly British writer? Or do you see yourself as having more in common with the new internationalism that is beginning to characterise contemporary science fiction?

ANNE: I suppose I do think of myself as a British writer. My speculative fiction fits pretty neatly with your comment on SF New Wave. But I’m not so keen on pinning these things down—I don’t wish to feel any obligation to carrying on doing what I’ve done before, if you see what I mean.

charnock calculated lifeI’m pleased you mention Iris Murdoch. I’m also a fan of Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels including The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World. These are disorientating and distressing reads, almost fantastical, because as the narratives unfold you don’t know what or who to believe. It’s rather like the slipperiness of memory that you refer to. I feel these two novels anticipated Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin. We can’t seem to nail the truth in these novels.

So, you’ve chosen your books for the desert island! I played this game at my local book group’s Christmas party. I chose Michael Cunningham’s short novel, The Hours. I do regard this novel as a perfect example of a fragmented structure, linked as it is to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (I’d need to take her novel too!). I’d spend my time on the desert island working out all the connections between the two novels, and lapping up Cunningham’s beautiful writing style.

I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work in progress, but can you tell me about the novel you’ve recently completed, and any other fiction in the pipeline?

NINA: That’s an interesting point you make about the way Doris Lessing’s ‘Ben’ novels anticipate Shriver’s Kevin and I agree absolutely. An aspect of Lessing’s career that is not discussed anywhere near enough either within the mainstream or in genre circles is her lifelong fascination with speculative ideas. There are the two novels you mention, which as you say teeter on the brink of the fantastic, her Shikasta series, Briefing for a Descent into HellThe Memoirs of a Survivor (both of which are briefly discussed in my own novel The Race) and also later works such as The Cleftand Mara and Dan. I’ve noticed an unwillingness within genre communities to admit the importance of writers like Lessing and of course Margaret Atwood, to dismiss them as dabblers or ‘tourists’, an attitude which is frankly ridiculous when it could be argued that half of Lessing’s output is speculative, when Atwood has not only produced a novel – The Handmaid’s Tale – which will stand as one of the core works of the SF genre for decades to come, but has also, with the Maddadam trilogy and now The Heart Goes Last, dedicated the whole of the past decade more or less exclusively to writing science fiction. I could speculate for a long time upon the reasons for this kind of inverse genre snobbery, but suffice it to say that I think it needs to stop! Science fiction has much to draw from the mainstream in terms of depth and craft, just as mimetic literature is finding itself reinvigorated by speculative ideas – ideas a lot of mainstream writers wouldn’t have been seen dead trying out even two decades ago. Literature is reactive as well as proactive. As writers, we see something someone else is doing and immediately begin to consider how we might bring something like it into our own work. We’re magpies! Reading widely – and letting that reading have its way with us – is a large part of how we learn to advance as writers.

My second novel is called The Rift. It began as an alien abduction story, or something like that, but morphed into something different as I was writing. It’s the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie, who owing to unexplained circumstances have not seen one another for twenty years. When Julie unexpectedly returns, Selena is left feeling that the life she has lived since Julie’s disappearance has been a lie. It’s a novel about memory, and loss, but there is some weird alien stuff in there, too. The Rift is scheduled for publication in summer 2017. I’m currently in the early stages of thinking about my next book, which at the moment mainly consists of a file full of notes and a long list of books I need to read. I am, however, cautiously excited…

ANNE: On the subject of magpies, I agree! We advance by reading widely, and reacting to other writers’ work. Appropriation is a minor theme in Sleeping Embers—how all the arts are enriched and energized by revisiting the past, by borrowing from other art forms, and using other artists’ work as a springboard.

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Well, Anne and I both agreed that this could have run and run, but we had to bring it to a close somewhere! For those of you planning to be at Eastercon, you can catch Anne in conversation for real on the Sunday at 4pm, this time with Matt Hill. They’ll be discussing the influence of Manchester on their writing, among many other things I’m sure. It’s bound to be a fascinating discussion. In the meantime, you can visit Anne’s blog here, and of course read her books!

#weird2016: Run the GAMUT!

There’s a wonderful project up at Kickstarter at the moment and I’m personally urging anyone with an interest in horror and weird fiction to consider backing it, or just to spread the word if you possibly can. GAMUT looks like being the most interesting new magazine venture to have surfaced in years. It’s the brainchild of Richard Thomas, writer and editor. Richard has made literary quality a defining feature of all the projects he’s been involved with, and if you glance down the tables of contents of the anthologies he’s edited – The New Black, Burnt Tongues (which was a Stoker finalist) and The Lineup – you’ll see just what an innovative and ambitious approach to weird fiction he has.

Don’t listen to me – let Richard tell you more about Gamut himself:

Gamut will be accepting solicited submissions only for a time, but Richard fully intends to open the magazine up to new writers in due course. There will be non-fiction and commentary too.

I believe that Gamut is exactly the kind of webzine the genre landscape needs right now. Independent-spirited, innovative and just more willing to take risks than other venues. I hope to see it becoming a kind of meeting point, a hub for weird writers and readers of all persuasions. With the right support and enthusiasm, Gamut really could help to increase the profile of quality speculative fiction generally.

Please back Gamut now!