Category Archives: writers

#weird2016: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

BlackTom-cover“So I sought out others, entirely unlike myself, and when they spoke of secret wisdom, I listened. What men like myself would dismiss as superstition or worse, pure evil, I learned to cherish. The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch. Because to watch would be to understand the play isn’t being staged for us. To learn we simply do not matter to the players at all.”

And so Robert Suydam – the rich and evil genius of the piece – goes on to speak to Tommy Tester – the black Tom of the title – of a King who sleeps at the bottom of the ocean:

“The return of the Sleeping King would mean the end of your people’s wretchedness. The end of all the wreck and squalor of a billion lives. When he rises, he wipes away the follies of mankind. And he is only one of many. They are the Great Old Ones. Their footfalls cause mountains to topple. One gaze strikes ten million bodies dead. But imagine the fortunes of those of us who were allowed to survive!”

Has Robert Suydam not seen Remembrance of the Daleks?? Certainly Tommy is not convinced they should be messing in with all this:

Tommy remained on the porch long after Robert Suydam shut the door. A bright morning in Flatbush, that’s what Tommy saw, but he had a tough time walking down the steps, down the treelined path, and out to the sidewalk. He kept expecting he’d set one foot off the porch and right into an ocean where the Sleeping King waited. And why couldn’t this happen? That’s what paralysed him. If all the rest could be true, then why not so much else? 

But with $200 in his pocket, and the promise of $200 more if he returns to Suydam’s mansion the following evening, Tommy finds himself wondering if a second visit might not be in order after all. ‘The old man had been right,’ he acknowledges. ‘Tommy Tester did enjoy a good reward’. And when Tommy returns home to discover that his beloved father has been murdered by the odious detective, ‘Mr Howard’, he begins to see Suynam’s prophecy through new eyes:

What was indifference compared to malice?

“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.

*

We are in New York in 1924. Tommy Tester is a small-time hustler and musician, getting by the best he can in a world that is predisposed, when it notices him at all, to find him inferior. Tommy knows how to duck and dive though, and with loyal friends and a close relationship with his father, he’s getting by OK. Until the three vectors of his fate – his meeting with Suydam, the death of his father, his theft of a certain piece of notorious arcana – intersect, that is, and Tom realises the world he has been making do with is no longer enough for him.

The events and personages of The Ballad of Black Tom are closely modelled upon those of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, and LaValle’s novella is in essence, an impassioned response to that tale, and the seething, furious racism it contains. In Lovecraft’s New York, the eldritch horrors of Parker Place are laid directly at the door of its mainly immigrant population. His story, which is nine-tenths exposition, is an expression of fear and loathing, a certain proof, for any who still need one, of Lovecraft’s bigotry and dis-ease concerning ethnic minorities. LaValle returns Harlem and Red Hook to the people who live there. He makes the protagonist of his story a black man – and if Black Tom ends up a monster, we as readers are left in no doubt as to who has made him one.

In Lovecraft’s story, the detective Malone, like so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, prefers to look away from what he thinks he has seen. LaValle’s Malone is not given that choice.

There is powerful material here. Tommy’s initial journey out to the mainly white suburb of Flatbush, where his very presence on the train exposes him to personal danger, is a powerful reminder of the violence and opposition faced by African Americans during Lovecraft’s time simply in living their lives. The circumstances surrounding the death of Tommy’s father are particularly devastating when viewed in the knowledge that similarly monstrous injustices are still being perpetrated on a more or less daily basis. Aside from its social and political commentary though, The Ballad of Black Tom should be applauded for making of ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ an actual story. It is a gripping yarn, featuring real characters with real motivations – a claim that can not safely be made for the original tale. That HPL and Sonia make their own cameo appearance is a nice touch also.

What LaValle’s story does not have though is Lovecraft’s language. For all its fomenting lunacy, there is no escaping the fact that HPL’s way with a sentence was something special:

Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are already rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things. 

LaValle’s prose, grounded and sound in both mind and body, seems pedestrian by comparison.

*

(Do check out this great interview with Victor LaValle at Electric Literature here, and also this one at SF Signal here.)

#weird2016: The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud

ballingrud,filthEric wouldn’t let go of the guy’s neck. He hit him again a few more times, and when the bottle came around once more he took it on the cheek. Blood sprayed onto the floor, the pool table, across his own face. Eric made a high-pitched noised that seemed to signal a transition into another state of being, that seemed to carve this moment from the rational world and hold it separate. It seemed that another presence had entered the room, something invisible, some blood-streaked thing crawling into the light.

Will is a bartender at Rosie’s, an all-night venue in one of the New Orleans’s less fashionable districts. Working the late shift he sees all kinds of things, not all of them pleasant, but Will doesn’t mind. He’s used to breaking up fights, clearing up the mess afterwards. His job means he can hang loose, live easy. There are always plenty of women around, and he has his best mate, Alicia, to share the ups and downs. Everything’s cool. Except it’s not. The cockroaches seem to be multiplying in Rosie’s Bar – Will imagines them swirling up from their nests in the pit of hell – and when the latest late-night fight gets out of hand, one piece of debris Will takes home with him does not prove so easy to get rid of as he first imagined. Suddenly, Will has bigger problems on his mind than how to decide between his current girlfriend Carrie and his not-so-platonic friend Alicia.

It was interesting reading this right after Scott Nicolay’s debut collection Ana Kai Tangata (review to follow soon). On the face of it, Will seems closely related to Nicolay’s protagonists: disaffected, shiftless, a total tool in his attitude to women. There are differences, though – Will does have glimmerings of self-awareness, but mainly it’s in the way Ballingrud is prepared to show, through his writing, that both Carrie and Alicia have their own agenda, their own agency, and that their biggest problem, actually, is Will. Fair dos to Will himself in finally realising this:

A terrible weight suspended between his lungs, threatening to upend him. He felt the heat of shame and grief gather in his face. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. He made his way to the bedroom and excavated a crumpled duffel bag from the recesses of the closet. He began to shove clothes into it, heedless of what he might actually need. Just random things. When he walked to the bathroom to get his toothbrush and his razor, he heard a stifled sob in the kitchen.

This was the world he’d built. This was his kingdom. 

The apotheosis of bad breakups for Will, then. And somehow I don’t think it’s going to matter all that much, what he puts in that duffel bag…

The story itself – a neat little twist on the contamination-by-video scenario firmly cemented in the horror genre by the first Ring movie – is compelling and doom-laden and finally horrific enough to keep you interested. No, scratch that – there’s no way you’re going to put this This is Horror chapbook down once you’ve started reading it. There’s a roughness around the edges, in parts – by the time Ballingrud’s writing has fully gathered momentum in the second half, the thing’s almost done. This story isn’t as finely wrought as Nicolay’s finest – Ballingrud’s language is very, very good in parts, but an overall consistency seems lacking. On the whole, I think ‘The Visible Filth’ would actually have benefited from being double the length, or even longer. I want to know more about the book Carrie was researching. I do definitely want to know more about whose phone that was. There’s so much more here that Ballingrud could have chosen to explore. I understand the argument for not revealing everything – but in this case it seems a damn shame not to have given this story its head, to have allowed it to become the novella it so clearly wanted to be.

Solid effort, though. Solid and enjoyable and menacing. That last page or two – why did you go there, Will? Why? (Yeah, he was a dork, but I did kind of feel sorry for him in the end.)

#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

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.

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.

anne.charnock.embers

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.

*

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!

Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe

between each breath.thorpeJack Middleton is a modernist classical composer and a fairly successful one. Arising from humble beginnings, he finds himself married to beautiful heiress Milly, living in a big house in Hampstead with as many lucrative commissions as he cares to accept. His life is thrown into turmoil when he encounters Kaja, a young student working in a cafe in Tallinn. He compartmentalises the encounter as a romantic interlude, affecting at the time but irrelevant to the main course of his life. But when this past indiscretion comes back to haunt him, the faultlines in his perfect existence begin to reveal themselves.

*

My heart thumped in my ears, but not from the exercise. I knew, somehow, as I pushed the cafe door’s loose handle down (it was a nicely old-fashioned French-style door), that I was doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong turn. But it excited me too because at some level it was a recognition that I was freer than I’d ever realised. (p 40)

Jack Middleton is the classic kind of English middle class sexist – the kind that has no idea that he is one. Both Milly and Kaja are made to look subtly ridiculous – Milly because she’s rich, ducks out of Oxford without getting her degree, and dresses up like Cleopatra whilst working to aid Palestinian refugees, Kaja by being made to look ten years younger than she is, by – in spite of her sexual allure – being made to seem naive and inexperienced in terms of relationships, by being foreign. Both women are gifted with intellectual capacities just sufficient to intrigue and captivate and surprise our ennui-laden hero, but never sufficient to outclass or scare him. Jack seems to have a Lawrence Durrell approach to women that sanctifies and patronises at the same time. It is intensely wearying.

Opening a book like this is always disconcerting. Is Thorpe aware of what Jack is like, or not? Is he incapable of writing women as equal human beings, or is he portraying them through Jack’s entitled eyes? In spite of any misgivings, I cannot help noticing that this is the best written book I’ve read since Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

The woman seemed to have a wind-billowing tent for a dress and something on her head, but she was in silhouette and the moonlight behind her was dimmer, now. She was crying. He couldn’t hear her crying but he knew she was because the whole dark room thrilled with it: the walls were – to put it in the way he was feeling it (almost as a visual thing) – running with her tears. There was nothing he could do: he knew it was a ghost, a spectral presence left over from some far-off time, like a means to an end that never came. He lay there looking at her and absorbing her sorrow. He felt he was helping her, simply by sharing the burden. (p 249)

Sudden irruption of the fantastic in a completely matter-of-fact way. There is no doubt here that the ghost is real, that Jack is seeing it. The book continues to be a mystery. Jack is the most selfish and entitled hero, squandering his talent in laziness and an ineffectual resentment of nothing very much. He has precisely nothing to say about music, his intellectual curiosity drowned in the ennui that comes from having too much and feeling vaguely guilty about it but not guilty enough to get off his arse and do better. And yet Between Each Breath is – almost unwittingly – one of the most accurate commentaries on turn-of-the-century Britain I’ve read, a pitch-perfect capture of a particular London milieu, the dire passivity of the middle classes. It chills because it’s so real. What to do? Thorpe’s writing is of a higher quality than anything McEwan has written since Enduring Love.

Jack was impressed by her history. She had somehow seen more than him. He couldn’t imagine it. (p 300) 

But Jack has seen NOTHING – and how can he believe even for a moment that he has? The way he patronises Kaja, even in his mind – for speaking English with a foreign accent, basically – is breathtakingly awful.

I’m paying for this too dearly. All I did was score with her. (p 300)

Makes me think of the review by Tibor Fischer in which he says that Thorpe ‘conjures up a whiff of the bunny boiler around Kaja’ and wonder if we’re still, genuinely in a situation where a woman’s aggrieved reaction to being lied to, patronised and emotionally deceived can be routinely described in this way. I admire Tibor Fischer and Adam Mars Jones tremendously both as writers and reviewers but really, their criticism of this novel does not even touch on these aspects and I find it lacking because of that. Are they both too immured within the social stratum Thorpe describes to see it objectively?

As he walked up the three flights to his eyrie, he thought of Kaja quoting Flaubert in French, his remark about the bracken caught in the stirrup. He was a complete pseud: he knew sod all about literature, French or otherwise. Or about much else.

All he knew about was music. In a sort of swollen, over-developed way. Parallel to life. Its own world. Like maths. 

But birds made music, didn’t they? (p 343)

Thorpe’s purpose begins to come clear as Jack’s world begins to fall apart. The novel is about the fundamental opposition between the world of capital and acquisition we inhabit, and the imperatives of art, and real thought. The latter is all but impossible in the context of the former. Jack has believed he can have both. He is being shown otherwise. Does he really love Milly, or the world that Milly has granted him access to? He is about to find out.

The drips in her arm, the bruises they made, the saline solution and waste bags around her like her innards pulled out on wires: he felt deadened to it all, to the horror of it. She’d once been a shop floor supervisor in a sausage factory, bustling about, giving orders, laughing and scolding in a white coat with a clipboard and beehive hairdo, looking like a doctor. He had to remember this. (p 349)

In his portrayal of Jack’s parents, and Jack’s mother’s decline and death, Thorpe captures with searing intensity the daily realities of a Britain – in contrast with the ludicrous excesses tussled over by sections of the capital – very much in decline. Donald and Moyna are deprived without knowing precisely how they are deprived. They are stoic, undemanding, ignorant, kind, casually, thoughtlessly racist, backward-looking, both grounded and lost. They soldier on until they absolutely cannot take another step. As a portrait of England this is testing and awful and achingly sad and real. This is everything Jack was desperate to escape – he loves his parents, he can never explain. But what has he escaped to?

As usual, despite flicking through his Selected Baudrillard beforehand in search of some killer phrase for any occasion, he found the others wittier and more intellectual, freighted with arcane, encyclopaedic knowledge about the history of music. Even the young Abigail Staunton defied her Top Shop look and sparkled with references to the Gerber Variable Scale, imperialist assumptions and her recent trip to Lebanon. Above all, they knew what they were doing when they composed. His reference to Shostakovich was mangled by nerves. If he’d been asked to spell him, he’d probably have got it wrong. (p 387)

Fascinating, how Thorpe has made Jack like this on purpose – ‘the Ulysses of subtopia’. Living with his dad in Hayes after his mother’s death, he has come full circle. ‘He would have to blow himself to smithereens and start again.’

And through all this the traffic moved steadily and with a sinuous heaped motion onwards towards no discernible place and for no discernible reason. Jack saw this through the spittled windscreen, or from the squeezed pavements of Hayes, and heard a harp. He had never heard a harp play what he was hearing it playing. It was playing the greyness of England. It was playing this weather. It was playing this English reality of ashen, utterly leaden futility. Of spoliation. Of flag-fluttering retail parks and commercial estates spread in a cancerous ring around every town. Of people with too much money and the people they’d taken it from, who no one cared a hoot about. Of the zillions that went into scuttling the green land and the clear air that must have existed once, not all that long a time ago. (p 391)

Brilliant, brilliant lines. Why do all the reviews of this book seem to concentrate on categorising it as a ‘reprise of the Hampstead novel’? In fact it is something far bleaker, far more serious, far more important. Thorpe is angry but it’s a very British, very embedded anger. What Thorpe is saying with this book does fire rage in me, and inspiration too.

Jack’s piece for St George’s Day is called ‘Grey Days’ – a complete shredding and reimagining of his former practice, which imposed all those ludicrous faux-modernist titles upon empty work.

On p 393, Jack finds himself. He finds the place he should always have started from. Everything Thorpe intended with this novel is revealed. And it is very, very good.

‘You know, it was like we…us two…we coincidenced,’ she said. (p 415)

Is that what it is? The stark reality of this story is about the necessity of Jack and Kaja meeting, in order that Jaan, who is exceptional, will be born? Jack, meddling once again in something he cannot understand, indirectly brings about a tragedy. Life never stands still. There is no happy conclusion – just the march of history.

I would love to know from Thorpe: at which stage in his writing did he decide to write that prologue?

*

I picked up this book because I’d been thinking about Adam Thorpe’s first novel Ulverton, the way it is structured, its intimate relationship with history and with the English landscape. I was drawn to Between Each Breath because it is a ‘music novel’, an area of literature I am irredeemably pulled towards and that feels particularly relevant to me now because of work I’m planning. As it turns out, music specifically has less importance for this novel than the idea of art – and of making art – in general. I was prepared to find this frustrating but it turned out not to matter. Between Each Breath is one of the most absorbing, skilfully worked and finally moving novels I’ve read in quite a while.

Thorpe plays a long game – this novel does not give up its secrets or its intent in five minutes, or even the first three hundred pages. But persistence is rewarded, and intensely so. This novel has more to say about the way we live now than so many of those insipid and rather smug ‘zeitgeist’ novels that have been incessantly and needlessly discussed in the broadsheet review columns – Ian McEwan’s pompous Saturday, for example, or Martin Amis’s ludicrous misfire Lionel Asbo. Thorpe’s is the kind of fiction that does so much more than take a sideswipe at newspaper headlines from a comfy armchair. It is a sustained act of imagining, and has true purpose. In every sense of the word, it is a great English novel.

You can read a superb interview with Adam Thorpe here.

New for spring…

occupy me. sullivanToday I’d like to say a few words about two brand new science fiction novels that I was lucky enough to have the chance to read in manuscript. The first is Occupy Me, by Tricia Sullivan. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of an angel discovering her true destiny, that would probably give you an extremely skewed idea of what this novel is actually like. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of a quantum being discovering the gateway to another universe, that might give you a better sense of the textures and themes you’ll find yourself experiencing if you pick up this book. Both statements would be true. Neither gives the whole picture.

“Most of the cabin class passengers are aware that they’re doing something extraordinary by flying. Even if they only let out a fleeting smile when looking out the window, or utter a silent prayer on landing, most of them sense that they are close to heaven. And heaven isn’t what you think it is. Heaven, even glimpsed side-on, is awesome. While folks are hurtling along at angel-altitude, their souls are open. Their hearts are accessible. Their minds can be touched. I’d like to think that a little nudge from me at the right moment on a flight can bring about long-term changes on Earth.”

I first read Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me in draft, in the summer of 2014, and I’m still trying to think of words that accurately describe it. ‘Adventurous’ and ‘ambitious’ don’t seem sufficient by themselves. ‘Experimental’ has to be in there somewhere, but I would hate to suggest that this novel doesn’t also deliver a blistering story. Occupy Me is skittish, fluid, unpredictable, rapturous, and wayward. There are so many ideas here – ideas on every page, jostling each other impatiently, like precocious children. I think the thing I love most about Occupy Me is that it feels so alive – as if those ideas are being created as you read about them, as if they’re still being thought about even as they plump down on the page. Nothing is fixed here – everything is up for grabs.

The voice of Occupy Me is alternately angry, tender, contentious and filled with wonderment. This is a novel in motion, and another thing I love about it is the way its language mirrors the mercurial fluidity of its thought processes. Sentence fragments, word cascades, thickets of imagery – this is a work in thrall to the power of the written word.

There need to be more science fiction novels like this: elusive, combative, curious, willing to take risks. Occupy Me is science fiction at its leading, not to say bleeding edge: there’s no formula for work of this kind. You won’t know exactly where you’re going until you get there.

It’s clear almost from the first that Occupy Me‘s central character Pearl is graft.2016working from a place of deep compassion. Compassionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the various protagonists of Matt Hill’s thrilling second novel Graft – the book opens with a particularly brutal punishment shooting – but travel the road with them a little further and you might be surprised.  What Graft also has in common with Occupy Me is an interest in quantum dimensions and parallel futures – according to Hill as to Sullivan, these can be very dangerous places to wind up in.

For anyone who’s read Hill’s debut, the terse and wonderfully unpredictable The Folded Man, his vision of a future Manchester – cracked and bleeding – will be familiar as well as fascinating. But you don’t have to have read that first book to enjoy this new one. Graft is more immediately accessible than The Folded Man, but its concepts and characters are no less challenging, no less original. As with Occupy Me, what I admire most about this novel is its language, its wily construction. You’ll begin by wondering where you are and what the hell is about to happen. But within a short space of time you’ll be drawn into a story you won’t want to put down. Matt Hill is shaping up to be one of the most innovative and outspoken new writers of British science fiction currently on the scene. If you enjoyed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, or Matthew di Abaitua’s The Red Men or If Then, then I’d strongly recommend you give Graft a read as soon as possible.

Beware the Manor Lord, though. And mind the Slope…

Graft is out any day now from Angry Robot. You’ll find an interview with Matt here at SFF World, and more on his insights and inspirations for Graft here at SF Signal.

Occupy Me is out now from Gollancz. Check out Tricia’s blog for more information on the science and even the music behind the novel, and listen to her in conversation with Mavesh Murad on the podcast Midnight in Karachi.

 

Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)

spindles.lewis.pageThis is the latest in Comma Press‘s series of short story anthologies exploring specific areas of science and scientific thought through the medium of fiction. Each writer is paired with a scientist working in the particular area they have chosen to investigate, with the scientist afterwards offering a commentary on the completed story. It’s a unique and intriguing concept – putting the science back into science fiction, you might say – and the afterwords here are without exception fascinating, offering a wealth of information and specific insights. The introduction to the anthology also, with its illustrative graphs and explanation of what our brains are actually doing while we sleep, is essential reading.

I must add though that for me personally, sampling the afterwords immediately after reading each story proved distracting, breaking the spell the story cast – rather like seeing an over-eager zoologist rushing to dissect the carcass of some small and beautiful animal, when as a naturalist, all I really wanted to do at that point was to observe the creature in its natural habitat. So whilst I’d recommend these afterwords wholeheartedly on their own terms, I’m not going to discuss them here, and would personally suggest saving them to read separately, once you’ve had time to properly appreciate these delicate morsels of fiction and the games they play.

And so then to the stories! In order of the Table of Contents, here we go:

  1. My Soul to Keep by Martyn Bedford (Afterword by Prof. Ed Watkins). Kim is a sleep technician, working in a sleep lab alongside Dr Aziz. They’re caring for and seeking information about Charlotte, a young woman diagnosed with Persistent Hypersomnic State. Charlotte has been suffering from depression and the amount of time she spends asleep has been gradually increasing. As the story opens, she’s just coming up for a full year without waking. As a ’21st Century Sleeping Beauty’ she has attracted a number of fans and acolytes, all of them women, who have taken up residence in a makeshift camp outside the sleep lab. “I log the data sets,” Kim informs us. “It’s what I do. What we do round the clock. Polysomnography, each 12-hour block of recorded information processed and analysed, every variation in the pattern and physiology of her sleep pored over for signs of change or clues to PHS. There never is any change, though. Charlotte’s sleep is as remorseless, as featureless as a desert.” I really liked this one. It’s a delicate, subtle story, exploring the lives and emotions of Kim, who has two sons of a similar age to Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother Evelyn, who wants to withdraw her daughter from the program and take her home. There’s a restless, uneasy quality to Kim’s thoughts as she finds herself drawn ever deeper into Charlotte’s world. A meditation, perhaps, on how the stresses of the modern world impact upon our ability to process them.
  2. Left Eye by Adam Marek (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). “Nancy puts her hand on Left Eye’s hot shoulder. The strength in him. That wizened baby’s face. Moments of wishing she wasn’t here.” We are in the near future. Nancy is an expert in Targeted Memory Replay, a technique whereby programming the sleeping brain to recall events or sensations experienced during waking hours can help to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Up until recently, Nancy has been working with soldiers returning from the combat zone. When a private company offers her a lucrative new job opportunity, she accepts with alacrity – only to discover that her new test subjects are being experimented upon without their consent. Anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will guess what the twist is here, and Marek’s story is equally devastating, equally morally complex, though on a smaller scale. A difficult, essential read, with no easy answers offered. The character of Nancy is brilliantly evoked in just a few short pages.
  3. A Sleeping Serial Killer by M. J. Hyland (Afterword by Isabel Hutchinson). A writer, Maria, explains to a psychotherapist she meets by chance in a cafe how she believes her violent nightmares are a kind of safety valve, siphoning off her rage and trauma and leaving her free to live a well adjusted life. ‘Even after an especially gruesome dream I wake in a mood of ‘lucid indifference’ and this cycle started when I was a child. From about the age of seven I was certain that I wouldn’t end up like ‘them’, my family, and that my nightmares weren’t a bad thing but a good and special trick that my brain played to make me tougher’, explains Maria. In her dreams she’s a serial killer, and that’s where this alter ego will safely stay. This is a fun one, a snarky little piece of metafiction – the story’s narrator and author share the same name – that nests its layers of unreality like glittery shreds of wrapping paper in a game of pass the parcel. There is serious intent here of course, but Hyland seems determined not to let us get too earnest about things by constantly undermining her clever little edifice with the worm of dark humour. I love the way this story is written.
  4. The Rip Van Winkle Project by Sara Maitland (Afterword by Prof. Russell G. Foster). The Greek gods Hypnos, Morpheus and Circadia call a meeting to discuss the worsening state of the world, which Circadia puts down to a wholesale human rejection of the dark. ‘It isn’t about money,’ Hypnos agrees. ‘They’re bullying each other into working inefficiently and for far too long for free. Even when they aren’t working they are up all night – shopping, something called ‘onlining’, even just staying awake to watch television shows they say are rubbish.’ Meanwhile, teenagers Sally Brampton and Matt Oliver go unwillingly to school, grouchy and resentful after being pulled from sleep by the demands of a world they are in no rush to join. Rooted in the natural world and spiritual contemplation, this witty and humorous story is everything we might expect from Sara Maitland. Rich in poetry and mythic imagery, this is a meditation on the restorative properties of sleep and the power of dreams – but not only dreams, as Circadia keeps reminding Morpheus – to return us to a state of energy and inspiration. A delightful piece.
  5. Benzene Dreams by Sarah Schofield (Afterword by Prof. Robert Stickgold). A potentially dangerous commercialisation of the techniques we witnessed in Adam Marek’s story, ‘Benzene Dreams’ tells us about Phil, a computer programmer who’s developed a new app called DreamSolve, which has the power to reinforce customer preferences or behaviours by learning and manipulating patterns of memory during sleep. Both big business and government are in a fiendish hurry to get their hands on DreamSolve, only there seems to be a problem – Phil won’t be bought. ‘You’re a wholly moral being, Philip, look at you. It’s adorable and terrifying all at the same time,’ says Diane, left-leaning government executive and supposedly the good guy. Phil soon learns that in this kind of race for primacy, no one is the good guy, and he is powerless. Schofield manages to make a chilling story very funny. I hope Phil gets his dog.
  6. Counting Sheep by Andy Hedgecock (Afterword by Dr Simon Kyle). ‘Fay flicked through sleep habit-tracker diagrams with their colourful spikes, spindles and histograms, explained the intelligent alarm clock function and demonstrated the sleep deficit indicators. “You put your phone under your pillow and it records tossing and turning, checks if you snore or talk in your sleep, and works out the best time to wake you with music, birdsong or whatever you like.”‘ A bunch of sociology lecturers at a FE college are encouraged to utilize the Dormouse app to regularise their sleep habits and up performance. Linden, scared of losing his job, complies with the guidelines. Lea is also scared of losing her job but is less prepared to put up with management bullshit. A shot across the bows from a writer who has clearly experienced this kind of corporate newspeak first hand and is rightfully angry. Linden is losing it – Hedgecock seems to be showing us a vision of what life might be like if the sleep app in ‘Benzene Dreams’ became a reality. I’m totally with Lea. Also contains Thea Gilmore reference. If this story doesn’t get you riled up you’re clearly already a pod person.
  7. Thunder Cracks by Zoe Gilbert (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘Now at thirteen years old, she is apprenticed to her father at the High Farm, where he makes workers of the wild horses and knocks the farm-born ones into good shape. Not the son he wanted but his eldest child, and he has no inkling how hard she has to try not to run away from those beasts, to be still when she looks at their rolling eyes, their twitching shoulders, She cannot harness their might, the way her father does.’ ‘Thunder Cracks’ feels a little like Whale Rider, only with horses. We are in an agrarian past, or possibly future. Madden is being schooled by her father to take over his work when he becomes too old to do it himself. Is it the storm that has caused Madden’s sleepwalking, or is she the emissary of forces beyond her control? Zoe Gilbert’s story, with its affecting poetry, its timeless setting, its stark illustration of how myth, magic and people are bound to a landscape, is easily my favourite of this anthology so far, at least partly because it seems so determined to take the original brief as inspiration only, to go its own wild way. I love it intensely.
  8. The Night Husband by Lisa Tuttle (Afterword by Stephanie Romiszewski), ‘A fantasy played out in my mind as I lay awake at home that night. Dr Bekar’s astonishment would lead to a more in-depth study which, although tedious, I must allow in the interests of science. Papers would be written, and I would be invited to appear at scientific conferences, and even on television. Others like me might come forward – how misunderstood we had been! – at last, our suffering was not in vain. Dr Bekar would write a book, and there would be a documentary made about my life, maybe even a docudrama, something like that one starring Robin Williams – Awakenings.’ A woman is plagued by sleep problems that started in childhood. She turns to a sleep clinician for advice, yet ends up finding answers much closer to home. This story has an intriguing premise, but for me it wore its research a little too openly on its sleeve. I think Tuttle would have been far better to dump the sleep lab stuff entirely and write more about the characters and their personal problems. To be honest, I’m coming to believe this is an issue that may be built into this particular format by default. Writing fiction is a intensely private process. There is a danger that having one’s research sources physically present in the form of a scientific collaborator might actively interfere with that.  I can see myself writing more about this problem in my summing-up.
  9. Narcolepsy by Deborah Levy (Afterword by Prof. Adam Zeman). ‘He reaches for a packet of chocolate and marshmallow biscuits called Wagon Wheels and unwraps the foil as he speaks.’ Why not: ‘He reaches for a packet of Wagon Wheels’? Is this story aimed at people from Mars, or is Levy simply afraid of being seen dropping brand names a la Stephen King? (I ate my first Wagon Wheel more than forty years ago, at my grandma’s caff in Nottingham. These things ain’t new.) The wagon wheels (lower case) reappear later on in the story so I guess this might count as a kind of oblique foreshadowing. Oh, and do look out for what Gayatri says to the flower seller about Ilya Kabakov – priceless. Reads like Rachel Cusk – in fact, this story brings back to me all the reasons I wrote this blog post. Oh, I get it, I get it, but this kind of writing makes me so tired. Which is probably appropriate, given the subject matter. I’m guessing that the story is an extended poetic metaphor created to mimic the ‘waking dreams’ of narcoleptics, and, my appalling sarcasm aside, my writing self admires it tremendously, even if only for the fact that it shoots the brief in the head and keeps on running.
  10. Voice Marks by Claire Dean (Afterword by Prof. Manuel Shabus). When we reached a particular gritstone crag, Dad always stopped and said, he’s still in there. This sleeping knight wasn’t one of Arthur’s army, Dad said he was from another time. Once, I asked him what the name was for the bright orange rings that spattered the stone. They’re voice marks, he said – the marks his voice leaves when he shouts out. Whenever I asked after that he said lichen, only lichen.’ A beautiful, resonant story about memory and loss, and how the names and faces of the dead are returned to us as we sleep. There is a whole novel in these couple of thousand words. A lovely piece of work, up there with the Gilbert for me.
  11. Trees in the Wood by Lisa Blower (Afterword by Prof Ed Watkins). ‘This leaves me in the kitchen with the twins, Margot and Henry, who have just turned five and are still in their school uniforms squabbling over jigsaw pieces under the kitchen table where they also now like to eat. I have told Mia that I don’t agree with them eating off the floor like dogs, but she says at least they’re eating and it keeps them quiet and I spot a few rubbery-looking pasta twirls on the floor and a dollop of what looks like hardened ketchup.’ Laura lives alone. She hasn’t been able to sleep since the death of her mother. She’s spending the night at Mia’s house on the advice of her doctor, that she should undergo a course of ‘sleeplessness with someone you trust’. Mia is a palliative care nurse with five-year-old twins, a teenage daughter, and a never-there husband. She’s completely exhausted. The two women share an evening. From between the cracks, secrets emerge. The details and textures of the women’s lives are utterly different – and yet there is something that each can give the other. An emotionally draining, hard-hitting story with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Brilliantly written.
  12. In the Jungle, The Mighty Jungle by Ian Watson (Afterword by Dr Thomas Wehr), ‘Our toxins quickly taught predators to ignore us. I can kill a lion who only touches me, sniffing. We can also induce a numbness that is more like inattention. Halfmoonlight striping darkbark branches bushing leaves. Does Du-du wear a thing upon Du-du’s head? Hard to see, hard to know.’ Alien entities communicate with prehistoric humans by entering their dream-space. There is the unspoken assumption that these aliens may have been the ‘missing link’ in human development. A curious, and curiously attractive story, experimental and lyrical at the same time, with a backward nod to the science fiction of the 1970s New Wave.
  13. A Careless Quiet by Annie Clarkson (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘I tried to list in my head any symptoms I could have noticed, all those instances when you dropped something, or stumbled or fell, or shook a little, or couldn’t keep up, or when your foot went to sleep that time a few months ago and the sleeping in the day and the dreams. I didn’t know what was just age or tiredness or coincidence, or something I could have picked out from everything else, and said, ‘Something is not right here, Carl, let’s get this checked out.” A married couple experience changes in their life as their daughters grow up and they approach retirement. But Carl is suffering from strange dreams. He’s talking to himself in his sleep, and striking out at people who aren’t there. ‘A Careless Quiet’ is sensitively written but it reads more like a piece of life writing and there’s no real story here. We guess the ending long before it arrives.
  14. The Raveled Sleeve of Care by Adam Roberts (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). ‘A word here as to his appearance: I would not have cast him, were i filming a melodrama about a German doctor. He did not look the part: no wire-framed spectacles, no kettle-shiny bald forehead, no agitated precision of movement.’ Flicking over to see what was on the Horror Channel last night, I came in midway through a movie called Outpost: Black Sun – ‘a German scientist by the name of Klausener is working on a terrifying new technology that will create an immortal Nazi army’ – which seemed to consist mainly of Jeff from Coupling grappling with a zombified Eva Braun inside some sort of secret bunker. I switched off, immersing myself instead in this weirdly similar but markedly better written story by Adam Roberts, in which the allusions are clever and literary and the humour is wholly intentional. The plot is simple: a French Nobel laureate makes the acquaintance of a mad German doctor who is working on the ultimate weapon – sleeplessness. He is persuaded by some equally dodgy Americans to pursue the Herr Doktor out to his secret compound in Argentina. ‘There was a single image, a portrait photograph of exactly the person you would expect to find in Schlechterschlaf’s study.’ There’s fabulous stuff like this all the way through. The story is wonderfully, boisterously insane, and exquisitely written. I loved every moment. And who else but Adam Roberts is going to call his Nazi villian Doctor Badsleep?

There are some outstanding stories in this anthology – I would single out the Gilbert, the Dean, the Blower, the Roberts and yes, the Levy for particular mention. As with any themed anthology, there is a tendency towards repetitiveness, a problem I think has been particularly exacerbated by the presence of such detailed scientific guidelines. The number of stories here featuring sleep labs, for example, is far higher than what would normally occur. Spindles presents us with a conundrum: it is an anthology that explores its subject matter intensively and in depth. It is also an anthology that presents, in places, a curious uniformity of approach.  It will be noted that the stories that impressed me most were those that scampered, like recalcitrant schoolchildren, away from the brief.

I must also admit to having doubts about the overall wisdom of Comma’s ‘science into fiction’ concept. From the outside, the idea always seemed attractively intriguing. Now, having experienced it in close up, I am forced to conclude that this particular approach means that the stories are forever in danger of seeming merely like illustrations for the scientific afterwords. ‘Time to separate the science from the fiction,’ says Professor Robert Stickgold as he kicks off his afterword to Sarah Schofield’s story. You can almost hear him rubbing his hands together in his eagerness to get started on the dismantlement process. Sadly I couldn’t disagree more. By this point I was beginning to feel that these afterwords were having much the same effect as the electric light in Sara Maitland’s story: deadening the natural responses, destroying the secret rhythms of a mysterious and essential process.

I must stress that tolerance for such disruption may vary, and there will no doubt be many readers who relish the opportunity to get up close and personal with the scientific documents in the case. For these people, reading Spindles will provide an enthralling journey. Yet the ineluctable fact is, what scientists do and what writers do are two rather different things. That writers – and especially writers of science fiction – can, do and maybe even should draw upon the work of scientists in finding inspiration, direction, and a sturdy armature for their fiction is not in question. But to have the blinding interrogation lamp of fact shone directly – and so immediately – upon the fruits of their labours has had, for me at least, a seriously deleterious effect.

‘Like being shown a magic trick, and then having some other c**t walk out onstage immediately afterwards to show you how it was done?’ Chris suggested, when I was telling him about this. Yes, exactly like that.

And yet. It is impossible not to admire what Comma are doing here, and any project that innovates so intelligently is to be applauded. And so I would commend you to read this book. Immerse yourself in its contents and find out for yourself how you feel about them. I would expect science fiction readers and writers especially to come away invigorated and most likely inspired by the experience.

[DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of this anthology direct from the publisher.]

Two for the road – best of British

ifthen.mdaBonfire night in Hastings always left me wanting to rush home and write about it. It’s an elaborate and thrilling affair, an hours-long spectacle of mime, mummery, music and street artistry, prepared for many weeks in advance and attended upon by thousands. It has the feel of a pagan carnivale, which I suppose Guy Fawkes night is, in a way. The costumes, pipes and drums certainly put fire in the blood and I for one found the whole thing exciting and strangely moving, the kind of public ceremonial that leaves you feeling intrinsically linked to history in a mysterious way. I’ve not attended the bonfire parade in the almost-neighbouring town of Lewes, but from what I understand it is taken at least as seriously as the one in Hastings and is at least as ornate.

There’s an extended sequence towards the beginning of Matthew de Abaitua’s Lewes-set novel If Then that just has to have been inspired by the bonfire ceremonials – I’d eat my proverbial hat if it wasn’t. It’s a fantastic scene, diabolic and weird, and though on the face of it it has nothing to do with a bonfire party, I couldn’t imagine anyone capturing the spirit of the thing so vividly and in such brightly sinister colours as de Abaitua.

What are they celebrating then, de Abaitua’s Lewesians? Eviction Night of course – and we all must know where the germ of that idea came from. The horrifying scenes in If Then now seem to cast a backward shadow over the whole of the 2000s, all those ridiculous Friday nights, waiting to see who would leave the Big Brother house (and who cares about that now for even a microsecond?)

De Abaitua has certainly got his own back on Davina.

When you think about post-New Wave novels of the Cold War such as Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay, what comes to mind is a kind of uneasy dreaming, a communal self-deception in the face of oncoming disaster. These novels – and there are others we might add to their number: Keith Roberts’s Pavane of course, D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – have a languorous, pastoral quality that belies their urgency. Written in the shadow of the Bomb, subsumed by the brasher and seemingly more contemporary colours of cyberpunk, they are important to British SF in a way that is not always paid due diligence. Now we have de Abaitua’s If Then, whose themes and concerns and sense of place echo those of the post New-Wave in a manner almost shocking in its resonance.

Not the Bomb, but the bomb, not the Cold War, but the mass-produced, soul-grinding exigences of late capitalism. If Then shows us – in the murky mud-green tones of John Singer Sargent’s great World War One painting ‘Gassed’ – how the capitalist experiment is failing. It also provides an equally horrific illustration of the perils we face in finding a route out of it, something that might fill its vacuum without destroying the lot of us – and the planet – in the process.

If Then starts out reading like metaphor. The deeper you penetrate its interior, the more you come to understand that it is documentary. This isn’t really the future, or indeed the past. These things are happening now, to real people. I found the first quarter of this novel to be some of the most gauntly terrifying SF I have ever read.

If Then may be one of the most important works of British SF to appear in recent years. It is sinewy, tough meat at times, but then so is any decent intellectual discussion. It is stunningly original and superbly well written. For those who care about such things, it is firmly of SF, not the literary mainstream – yet it is technically as complex and well executed as any modernist novel you may meet on your Booker travels. I hope this book will be discussed and debated and praised, for it deserves all three sorts of attention in generous measure. If Then is the opposite of the literature of reassurance, it is everything science fiction should be aiming for, and it is wonderful to see de Abaitua back on the scene.

“Do you think that an artist imagines the final painting in an instant? Thatanne.charnock.embers the painting composes itself through a moment’s inspiration? The artist must have a strategy every bit as cunning as the commander of a great army. Like Nicolo di Tolentino, here, in this painting. Remember that.” (p 65) 

In this scene, not far from the start of Anne Charnock’s second novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, the Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello tutors his daughter Antonia in the art of composition. Using his drawings for ‘The Battle of San Romano’ as examples, Uccello prompts Antonia to describe the many ways in which the panting not so much allows itself to be looked at as gives the viewer quiet instructions in ways of seeing. Through the careful use and positioning of key symbols and images, Uccello’s work does not just set a scene, it tells a story. That this scene conveys with such beautiful economy the signs and symbols – a lance, a wooden chest, the plague, a portrait, a battle, a nunnery – that Charnock herself has used to stitch together her own three-stranded narrative is but one reason among many that this quiet, lovely and exquisitely crafted novel is itself a masterclass in composition.

There are traumas hinted at in these pages – the untimely death of a parent, the cataclysmic loss of life in war, the entry of a thirteen-year-old girl into a life of permanent seclusion in a convent – but these are meditated upon rather than graphically described. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a contemplation of history, of the ties that bind us and the losses that define us. The stories of three women – a young painter in Renaissance Italy, a teenage girl working on a history project in contemporary London, an art historian living one hundred years from now – intertwine to form a narrative that moves us and surprises us in equal measure. As in her debut novel A Calculated Life, the clarity and refined elegance of Charnock’s prose is a significant achievement.

In the Acknowledgements section of Sleeping Embers, Anne Charnock states how much she enjoys the research portion of writing a novel, and indeed this enjoyment, Charnock’s love of and fascination in her subject matter, shines through on every page. Charnock’s research is expertly deployed, inviting us in to discover more about her subjects rather than fencing us out behind a barrage of facts. I’m passionately interested in painting myself, and so will often naturally gravitate towards novels that include the visual arts as a core subject matter. For every novel that knows what it’s doing (Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, Russell Hoban’s My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, or The Bat Tattoo, or indeed anything by Hoban) there seem to be a dozen that simply appropriate art as a handy bolt-on ‘subject of interest’, a problem I find annoying and disappointing in equal measure. What a joy then, to relinquish myself to Charnock’s Quattrocento, to contemplate her analysis of the relationship between the work of Bernard and Gauguin, to be made party to that final scene with Antonia, bright as an icon, in which she discovers that colour, that paint itself is capable of telling a story that transcends mere realism, a discovery that may have exerted a seminal influence on future generations of artists far in her future. That Charnock knows what she’s doing is never in doubt. When I found myself looking up the specific works by Uccello that Charnock references in her text, I knew I’d been thoroughly seduced by this novel. And for all that Antonia Uccello’s portrait of her mother at prayer is a beautiful yet entirely fabricated construct, one cannot entirely let go of the feeling that the painting is in fact out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

You can find out more about the inspirations behind Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind at Anne Charnock’s Pinterest page, here.

Needless to say, both If Then and Sleeping Embers will be getting my vote for next year’s BSFA Award.

Happy New Year, everyone. Gods bless 2016, and all who sail in her.

Nominating for the BSFA Awards and end-of-year musings (Part Two)

So here I am, as promised, with my round-up of the short fiction and non-fiction that resonated with me this year.

The category of short fiction has, as always and as for everyone, presented me with problems. There’s too much of it for anyone to come halfway close to providing a proper assessment (although some brave souls such as Ethan Robinson, Charles Payseur, K. Tempest Bradford and Lois Tilton give it a damn good try), and for whatever reason it seems to be the discussion of short fiction in particular that becomes plagued by a kind of shallow topicality, with similar types and profiles of short fiction bobbing to the surface again and again ad infinitum. I find this depressing and tiresome, especially when the most lauded stories turn out to be pleasing enough, OK, but hardly substantial when compared with, say, an Alice Munro story or a Yiyun Li story or a David Constantine story or a Claire Vaye Watkins story or an Aminatta Forna story. (Because yes, that’s exactly the kind of comparison we should be making.) Pressures of time and general short-fiction-malaise have ensured I have done little more than skim the surface of the veritable ocean of stories that appeared in 2015. I have, however, come across some that I would be more than happy to see on any of the awards shortlists in 2016. So in no particular order:

  1. THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS by Kai Ashante Wilson (tor.com). I don’t even know if this novella will qualify as short fiction for most awards – at around 42,000 words (I think) it breaks the word count for more than one set of guidelines – but I saw someone saying the other day that it qualifies for the Hugo and if that’s right it should win hands down. This novella is so rich, both in texture and content, that it really needs several readings to take it all in. The demi-god (or is he?) Demane falls in love with Captain, a hardened mercenary charged with guiding a merchant caravan safely through a hazardous tract of wilderness known as the Wildeeps. There is a beast at large there, it is rumoured – but what is the true nature of that beast, and what does its presence signify for the world of Captain and Demane? This is a story of magic and science, science and magic and in Sorcerer‘s concern with the bridge between these two disciplines I was reminded a little of Zachary Jernigan’s Jeroun stories. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a fantasy of the highest order, vital and intelligent, a tapestry of living language that tugs at your mind long after reading. I think Wilson is shaping up to be a writer of genuine importance. Bravo.
  2. THE PAUPER PRINCE AND THE EUCALYPTUS JINN by Usman T. Malik (tor.com). Science and magic again, but not in the same way. This story – about a second generation Pakistani-American going in search of his heritage and finding a lot more weirdness than he bargained for is mystifying and beautiful and heart-wrenching. It is also complex and nuanced and stunningly written. It fulfils all the promise that was present in Malik’s Nebula-nominated The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family and all in all it just makes me glad to read something this moving, this well imagined, this intelligent. The stuff about carpets is breathtaking! Again, bravo.
  3. FABULOUS BEASTS by Priya Sharma (tor.com). Ancestry again, but of a weirder kind. Priya Sharma is a seriously good writer. As a commentary on the family, post-urban Britain, and sisters doing it for themselves, ‘Fabulous Beasts’ is strong and lucid and beautifully wrought. Her stories for Black Static (The Absent Shade) and Interzone (Blonde) this year are equally worthy of mention.
  4. HER FIRST HARVEST by Malcolm Devlin (Black Static). Adults living on a sterile mining colony have to be ‘seeded’ to grow fungal matter on their bodies as the main source of food in this bizarre and disturbing marriage of apocalyptic science fiction and Regency romance. This is original and genuinely weird and I loved it, most of all for its lucid, understated language and for actually getting under my skin… Devlin’s story in the most recent issue of Interzone, ‘Five Conversations with My Daughter (Who Travels in Time)’ is every bit as good and Devlin is most definitely a writer worth watching.
  5. TEA TIME by Rachel Swirsky (Lightspeed). A delicious meditation on time, metafiction, and Alice in Wonderland. This is exactly the kind of story I want to see more of. Such poise, such poetry. A lovely thing indeed.
  6. PAUL AND HIS SON by J. M. McDermott (Asimov’s). Brilliant story set in a near-future NYC. Paul is a lawyer. His client is Noah, a millionaire businessman who is trying to get his life-extension treatments illegally extended. Paul allies himself with Noah’s doctor in order to obtain drugs to ‘help his son to focus’ on school. Paul Jr keeps running away and he’s obsessed with machines. This is effortless worldbuilding, a near-future science fiction scenario that feels like today, squared. The relationship between a caring but clueless father and a teenage son is perfectly realised. This story is so superior to most of the other SFF short fiction out there it’s ridiculous.
  7. A MURMURATION by Alastair Reynolds (Interzone). A taut and effective story about obsession and madness. The idea of starling murmurations as predictive algorithms, as modular organisms, is fascinating and original. A dark story with a fantastic sense of place – the bleak fenlands of East Anglia, the narrator’s sense of alienation whilst living there, are wonderfully captured. This is a great piece of writing and I would love to see Reynolds writing more in this vein.
  8. DOCUMENTARY by Vajra Chandrasekera (Lightspeed). This was the first story of the year that really grabbed me. A woman who changes into a helicopter at the full moon refuses to discharge her weaponry – the one act which might cure her – in order not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. ‘Cameras’ filming the documentary are the presence of the dead who have already fallen victim to the war. A highly original variation on the werewolf trope, Mievillian without being remotely copycat. Taut yet lyrical writing. Chandrasekera is one of the most promising newer voices around.
  9. THE OCCIDENTAL BRIDE by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld). My favourite of Sriduangkaew’s stories this year (though they’re all good), ‘The Occidental Bride’ is a biting commentary on orientalism and terrorism, set in a world torn between a shattered Europe and a surveillance-state Hong Kong. This is a terse, uneasy story, rich and disturbing, with Sriduangkaew’s characteristically dense language and vividly evoked imagery impressive as ever. Of Sriduangkaew’s other 2015 stories, I particularly enjoyed ‘Provenance’ in the all-women Lovecraft anthology She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles. This is one of those darkly vibrant Mythos-in-space stories I always love, and a great one. (I’d enjoy seeing the doctor make a repeat appearance in another story sometime!) The impassioned conviction behind Sriduangkaew’s writing, coupled with her flair for language, maintain her position as one of the most interesting and competent of the new generation of short fiction writers. She’s always worth reading and I hope we see more of her next year.
  10. THE FAR SHORE by Yoko Tawada (Words Without Borders). A story inspired by the accident to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. This is the future, and a young American pilot accidentally crashes his plane into a nuclear reactor off the coast of Japan. A wave of chaos, fear, death and unforeseen events spreads out from this initial accident, affecting individuals and whole states alike. The story is told in a totally deadpan, very factual manner. Effective and angry and yes, we need more SF like this.
  11. MINOTAUR: AN ANALYSIS OF THE SPECIES by Sean Robinson (Unlikely Story). Well, I just love fake taxonomy stories. Could read them all day. Borgesian, delightful, perfect. Exactly what it says on the tin.
  12. ANDROID WHORES CAN’T CRY by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld). I like everything I’ve read of Theodoridou, who is a strikingly gifted writer. I especially admire her forensic approach to devastating subject matter, as here. A story about the lies history tells, and those she exploits in the telling. This one sticks in the mind.
  13. Excerpt from UNLANGUAGE by Michael Cisco (Lackington’s).“At the end of a relentlessly long drive—nearly to the end of the line—the building, rambling and drab—pale lights in only a few of its many windows—silence of ceaselessly whirring air vents—tall, narrow white corridors of institutional plainness and squareness—pipes below the ceiling—paint peeling on the walls becoming pink and inflamed—wan fluorescent lights in trays—thin, sour odor of decomposing flesh—a metal door like the rest, with its thick integument of blue paint and an arrow slit. The school is not elegant; it’s like a gas station.” As the title suggests, this is actually a section from a hitherto unpublished novel, but it works perfectly well as a standalone story in its own right, and I like it too much not to include it here. Brilliant, weird and decadent as all Cisco’s fiction, this is a superb little sub-Mythos story about the untapped power of language to summon horrors. Genuinely ambitious, as all the best weird fiction should be, it reminded me in places of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I love this story, and I wish I’d written it. As a writer, Cisco is criminally under-appreciated. I only hope he’ll let us read Unlanguage in its entirety one day soon.
  14. THE DAYS OF TALKING MOUNTAINS by Paul Jessup (Farrago’s Wainscot). A webzine entirely new to me, I came across Farrago’s Wainscot completely by chance. A lucky discovery and I’ll certainly be looking out for it in the future. This short, sad, frightening and surreal story about a brother Gerald and a sister Alice and the giant farm they keep in memory of the Master captivated me utterly. Replete with elliptical poetry, it reads like a piece of European weird fiction. I’ll be reading more of Jessup, that’s for sure.
  15. ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF CAPITOLA, 1978 by David Herter (tor.com). This is billed as ‘a modern re-imagining’ of a story by Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death’, which was itself inspired by Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. I’ve read the Wells but not the Wolfe, so I can’t comment on how exactly the two stories interconnect. What I can do is recommend Herter’s piece as a stunning piece of writing, from another criminally under-appreciated writer. I intend to seek out the Wolfe, so I can read the two in tandem.

Sticking with short fiction just for the moment, I’d like to give a mention to two 2015 anthology projects that particularly caught my attention. Firstly the above-mentioned SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS, which presents a range of excellent Lovecraftian fiction, all by women writers. A lot of talent and imagination has been expended on this book, including splendid cover art by Sarah K. Diesel and interior illustrations by a variety of women artists. As well as the Sriduangkaew noted above, there are standout stories from Gemma Files, Angela Slatter, Pandora Hope and Sharon Mock.

The second anthology I’d like to mention is AICKMAN’S HEIRS, edited by Simon Strantzas and published by Undertow. [DISCLAIMER: I do actually have a story in this one myself, which it is not my place to comment on here.] I’m strangely devoted to Aickman’s fiction, and so this project was always going to be close to my heart. What I could not have predicted, though, was the marvellous cohesiveness of the anthology Strantzas eventually assembled. All the stories are of a superior quality and I would recommend each and every one of them, for Aickman stalwarts and new initiates alike, but standouts for me personally include Helen Marshall’s ‘The Vault of Heaven’, Michael Cisco’s ‘Infestations’, Lisa Tuttle’s ‘The Book that Finds You’ and Malcolm Devlin’s ‘Two Brothers’.

The non-fiction category of awards – sometimes referred to as Best Related Work – presents a different kind of problem in that we’re expected to consider essay collections and other full-length works alongside individual blog posts, essays, reviews, discussion projects and articles. The reasons for this are doubtless lost in the mists of time – something to do with the vast proliferation of shorter-length online material in the age of the internet, no doubt – but clearly the rules need to be re-evaluated. Until they are, I guess the category will continue to shuffle about on the sidelines, neglected and obscure, a continuing frustration for those of us who think it’s actually rather important.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll continue to lump everything together in a shapeless mass, the same as everyone else. So again, in no particular order:

1. RAVE AND LET DIE by Adam Roberts (NewCon Press). Roberts was on the jury for the Kitschies in 2015, and alongside the challenge of judging the books (well over a hundred of them) he set himself the task of reviewing them too, thus providing a fascinating overview of the science fiction and fantasy of 2014. This book is as entertaining as it is informative. For those works that merit close attention and serious scrutiny, Roberts brings his full weight of intellect and erudition to bear.  When a book is shallow, trite, poorly executed or just plain bad, Roberts seems never to run out of original and highly amusing ways of saying so. Rave and Let Die is a must for every library of SF criticism.

2. DUNE, FIFTY YEARS ON; HOW A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL CHANGED THE WORLD by Hari Kunzru (The Guardian). “Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius.” Any essay by Kunzru is a joy to read, and this piece, drawing on Dune’s politics and spirituality and the way they look to us now, post 9/11, is simply outstanding.

3. FROM ANNIHILATION TO ACCEPTANCE: A WRITER’S SURREAL JOURNEY by Jeff VanderMeer (The Atlantic). A fascinating and deeply personal insight into how the Southern Reach trilogy came to be written – and how it felt to write it.

4. ATEMPORALITY by Vajra Chandrasekera. As well as being one of the most exciting new short fiction writers currently on the scene, Chandrasekera is also one of the most thoughtful, original and articulate SF bloggers. The only problem with his criticism is that he doesn’t write more of it – although of course pieces demonstrating this degree of depth and clarity take real time to write, and I’d rather read one essay by him than ten hastily assembled and less considered thinkpieces by less committed writers. ‘Atemporality’ considers the impossibility of short fiction criticism in a climate where one is somehow expected to keep up with everything. WAR IS OTHER PEOPLE, Chandrasekera’s essay on Military SF, is equally worthy of mention and such a great read.

5. RACE, SPECULATIVE FICTION AND AFRO-SF by Chinelo Onwualu (New Left Project). Superb essay covering the Puppies, internet outrage, the reality of diversity and the true place of magic and spiritualism in Afro-SF. Essential, inspiring reading. Well worth considering alongside it are two other wonderful pieces, one being an interview with the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah in The Guardian, the other being Sofia Samatar’s powerful and essential essay for the New Inquiry, SKIN FEELING. Neither of these pieces is directly about speculative fiction, but both have a central relevance to the debates around diversity currently taking place in genre circles and should be read.

6. CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELLING by Kate Schapira. Driven by her own anxieties about climate change, the poet Kate Schapira first began her Climate Anxiety Counselling project in the summer of 2014 when she set up a booth in a public park and invited passers by to share their anxieties about global warming (or anything else) which she then (with their permission) transcribed into a series of flash fictions, vignettes, memoirs and prose poems. The results, many of which can be read at Schapira’s Climate Anxiety blog, are often mesmerising. Schapira’s unique approach in setting herself up as a conduit for the voices of others has resulted in a Gesamtkunstwerk that is both unique in character and vitally important.

7. SEX, DEATH AND THE MAN-OMELET IN KELLY LINK’S ‘THE SPECIALIST’S HAT’ by Helen Marshall (Weird Fiction Review). Weird Fiction Review continues to be one of the very best webzines around, and this essay by Helen Marshall, the most recent entry in WFR’s ongoing ‘101 Weird Writers’ series, is an imaginative, entertaining and thought-provoking examination of the philosophical uncanny in Link’s landmark story. Anything Marshall writes is worthy of notice, and it’s marvellous to see her beginning to build a roster of gorgeously inventive critical essays to place alongside her already remarkable body of fiction.

8. READING ELYSIUM BY JENNIFER MARIE BRISSETT by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife). A fascinating and in-depth analysis of one of the key speculative works – and winner of the PKD Award – in 2014. I particularly enjoyed MKS’s examination of the tendency towards ‘accepted’ readings of texts within critical circles, and how this can set up a false or derailed discourse. One of MKS’s best reviews to date, I’d say (and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition).

9. ARMADA IS FUCKING TERRIBLE by Andrew Liptak. Angrily entertaining yet deadly serious in intent, Liptak’s honest, heartfelt and well argued critique of Ernest Cline’s 2015 novel Armada seeks to examine the elitist tendency within geek culture and its propensity to exclude rather than include outsiders.

10. WHY PEOPLE STOPPED READING THE STUFF YOU POST ON THE INTERNET by Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture). McCalmont’s honesty, thoughtfulness, sometimes-contrarianism and general refusal to have his views, tastes and opinions moulded by fashionable discourse are valuable and increasingly rare commodities in SFF, and although I always enjoy and appreciate his film criticism I do wish he’d go back to reviewing books, at least occasionally, because we need his voice. This piece, on the decline (?) of real blogging, is provocative and timely in equal measure.

11. FORD MADOX FORD: AS SCARY AS H.P. LOVECRAFT? by Ned Beauman (The Guardian). I loved this essay, which draws some unexpected parallels between the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Ford Madox Ford’s seminal classic The Good Soldier. ‘Ford and Lovecraft are not often discussed in the same breath,’ says Beauman. ‘But in fact they are very similar. The difference is that Lovecraft appears to be writing about cosmic horror but is really writing about sex, whereas Ford appears to be writing about sex but is really writing about cosmic horror.’ He certainly makes a convincing case, and makes entertaining reading in the process. Like Beauman, I never expected to enjoy The Good Soldier. Like Beauman, I found it electrifying, horrifying and utterly compelling. The experience of reading it – anticipating each new revelation in much the same way one might anticipate a new episode of The Killing or London Spy, only with ten times the eventual satisfaction – is still fresh and delicious in my mind, and The Good Soldier would be a desert island book for me. Beauman has ensured that the next time I read it, I’ll be thinking Cthulhu.

12. MAGIC IS AFOOT by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta). Robinson has continued his explorations of SFF short fictions in exemplary and heroic fashion this year, providing us with a series of essays that are less reviews and more contemplative meditations not just on the qualities of specific stories, but on the nature of short fiction writing and – as always with Robinson – the point and purpose of fiction in general. Unlike so many, Robinson’s pieces not only reward but necessitate repeated reading. I could have picked any one of a dozen entries from Marooned Off Vesta to list here, but the one above – on SFF’s vexed relationship with the problem of magic – has stayed with me particularly as a kind of bookmark, a reminder of this subject which is becoming increasingly central to and problematic within the genre. More a raising of the question than a thoroughgoing examination of it, I can only hope that Robinson chooses to continue his enquiries with a full-length essay in 2016.

13. And finally in the Best Related Work category, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the reviews by my colleagues at Strange Horizons that helped to light up my reading year and best exemplify why the magazine is so well worth your time. Benjamin Gabriel’s review of Mark Danielewski’s ONE RAINY DAY IN MAY is a brilliant appraisal of MZD’s project as a writer and one of the only reviews that managed to discuss the (ambitious, perplexing and yes, admirable) idea of The Familiar without undue snark. Similarly, Ryan Elliott’s review of Aliya Whiteley’s THE BEAUTY is most likely unsurpassed in terms of excellence within the body of criticism surrounding this fine novella and just such a thought-provoking read. I enjoyed Erin Horakova’s review of PADDINGTON too much not to include it here (and on the subject of Erin Horakova, do let me point you in the direction of her brilliantly acerbic and oh-so-necessary demolition of A. N. Wilson’s LONDON – you won’t regret reading this, I promise}. K. Kamo’s reviews are unfailingly excellent, and I was so happy to see this one of Sandra Newman’s THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel that made the year’s SFF awards shortlists preposterous by its non-inclusion. Niall Harrison’s review of Jennifer Marie Brissett’s ELYSIUM does everything to sharpen one’s sadness that he does not review more, and Abigail Nussbaum’s review of Zen Cho’s excellent collection SPIRITS ABROAD forms just one example of why Nussbaum’s criticism continues to be some of the best around.  Gautam Bhatia has written some wonderful stuff for SH this year, but I’m singling out this piece, on Anthony Trevelyan’s THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD in particular, probably because this is a book I want to read anyway and Bhatia’s review made me all the more curious about it. Paul Kincaid’s review of Iain Pears’s ARCADIA had rather the opposite effect, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that Kincaid’s criticism is as supple, erudite and inspiring to read as always. The same could be said of Aishwarya Subramanian’s criticism – I just love the way she writes. Check out her review of Bryce Olukotun’s NIGERIANS IN SPACE as a fine example. But if I had to pick out a personal ‘review of the year’ from Strange Horizons, I think it would have to be Paul St John Mackintosh’s review of the new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Ligotti’s SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER AND GRIMSCRIBE. To describe this essay simply as a review is to sell it short. Mackintosh not only provides us with an overview of Ligotti and his position within the horror canon, he also examines the contradictory relationship between Ligotti’s nihilistic worldview and the curiously uplifting experience of reading his work, as well as the reasons we read and enjoy horror fiction in general. It’s a superb piece, and I will certainly be seeking out more comment and criticism by Mackintosh in the coming year.

So that’s non-fiction. I’d kind of intended to do a round-up of 2015 films here as well, but this post is way too long already. I hope to find time for a ‘Films addendum’ before the year is out…