Category Archives: writing

#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.

#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