Category Archives: writers

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I remember reading a slightly strange article a couple of years ago about how in times of crisis or political turmoil, the act of reading or writing fiction could begin to seem irrelevant, a sideshow. We should be reaching for deeper truths, more urgent subject matter. This argument would appear to be more persuasive now even than when the essay was written, and there is a part of me that identifies with the sentiment behind it. I examine my motives in writing fiction much more closely now than I did when I started out, interrogate myself constantly about what kind of fiction I want and need to be writing. I believe that these are healthy and valid questions for any writer. But think about it for more than five minutes and you’ll see that questioning the validity of fiction as a means of understanding the world is to ask the wrong question. The greatest fiction has always been more than an escape or a solace – see the hundreds of novelists incarcerated in gaols across the world as political prisoners who stand witness to that fact.  In Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, we see how powerful a tool the novel can still be in highlighting the most urgent political questions of our generation, how directly and how boldly fiction can speak. That Shamsie has chosen to use mythic archetypes in telling her story only adds to its strengths, showing how even such a seemingly abstruse concept as literary form can have a pivotal role to play in the construction of a political argument.

In Sophocles’s Antigone, the titular character petitions King Creon of Thebes for permission to bring home the body of her disgraced brother Polyneices for a proper burial. King Creon refuses, and when Antigone carries out funeral rites for Polyneices in direct contravention of his orders, he demands that she be captured and executed. Antigone’s sister Ismene tries to remonstrate with the king, offering to die in her place. Antigone’s fiance Haemon – Creon’s son – though initially shocked by his beloved’s transgression, attempts to placate his father, begging him to spare Antigone and allow her to return home. Creon wavers, eventually acquiescing to his wife’s entreaties, that mercy be shown towards the young people as the gods would wish. In the manner of classical tragedy, his decision comes too late: Antigone has hanged herself, Haemon likewise commits suicide when confronted with her loss. Creon has saved his throne, but lost everything that mattered most to him in the process.

Home Fire begins with a sleight of hand, a deft and understated precis of what is to follow. Isma is at the airport. The eldest of three siblings, she has spent the past six years caring for twins Aneeka and Parvais, following the deaths of their grandmother and mother in quick succession. The twins are now nineteen, on the brink of going their own way in the world. Isma can return to the life she was expecting to live, fulfilling her cherished ambition to take up a research scholarship in the US. Though her paperwork is in order, Isma is detained at passport control, interrogated at such length about her purpose of travel that she misses her flight. On arrival in Boston, she tries to put the incident behind her, but the forces of politics and circumstance are already moving against her. The siblings’ father was a known jihadi who died while being transported to Guantanamo Bay. Their father was never around much – the twins have no real memories of him – but still, his outlaw status has been enough to keep the family on MI5’s radar. More devastatingly still, Aneeka’s twin brother Parvais has fallen under the influence of ISIS supporters and been persuaded that his place is in Raqqa, fighting the fight in honour of the hero father he never knew. Isma is furious – she blames Parvais for putting the whole family’s security at risk through his selfishness. Meanwhile Aneeka, desperate to be reunited with her brother, begins a relationship with Eamonn Lone, the son of ‘Lone Wolf’ Tory Home Secretary Karamat Lone, the one man who has it within his power to grant permission for Parvais to return home.

The airport detainment scenes aside, the opening chapters of Home Fire are deceptively bland. We see a young woman embarking on the next stage of her life, making new friendships, falling in love. It is only gradually, as parallel plot lines draw inexorably together, that the narrative begins to take on the characteristics of Greek tragedy.  Shamsie’s novel makes for an extraordinary reading experience, both at the level of story and in terms of its formal execution. Home Fire‘s relationship with its legendary precursor is subtle, striking, brilliantly clever, the extent of the narrative’s involvement with its source material only becoming fully apparent as the novel nears its conclusion. It could be argued that Shamsie’s characterisation is a little flat, that the characters’ identification with mythic archetypes renders them prisoners of the plot – but this also works in the novel’s favour, strengthening the bond with Antigone and revealing how myths are made. Personally, I found the characters managing to break free of their preordained roles just sufficiently to make them compelling in their own right, Aneeka and Parvais particularly, with Shamsie’s use of language – never less than excellent in terms of its craft – attaining a special resonance and beauty throughout those passages.

For me, this was a heart-pounding, heart-breaking narrative of great power and importance, the kind of novel you want to press into people’s hands. Ideally, Home Fire would be read by everyone in Britain, right now. That’s how relevant it felt to me as fiction.

After finishing Home Fire, I remembered an article Shamsie wrote for the Guardian in 2014, detailing her own experience of applying for British citizenship, Ideally, everyone should read this too, and ask themselves what it means for Britain when even an artist who continues to make an incalculable contribution to the cultural life of both her countries can be made to feel despair and panic in the face of this bureaucracy, a political culture that directly opposes every ideal it is said to espouse. As a writer, Shamsie was deemed ineligible to apply for leave to remain, because that category of application was abolished – writers, artists and composers are no longer of material value to British society, it seems. If she’d been trying to apply now, she would have found the goalposts moved again – she would been deemed ineligible on grounds of not having a big enough bank balance.

Britain is a poor sort of place right now, frankly. Home Fire shows us some of the ways we are being made poorer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction

International Women’s Day, and the announcement of the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve been looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed. One of the things I like about longlists is that the perspective they offer on a literary moment is deeper and wider than any six-book shortlist can hope to be. Here we have sixteen books. Those who enjoy such exercises can get stuck into what those books are saying about women writing now, and the societies they find themselves writing in. Aside from that, this is a fascinating selection of novels to read and enjoy,

The thing that stands out about this list for me personally is that it includes a satisfying number of titles I am genuinely excited about! Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve already read and adored Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY. In her first reaction to the longlist, writer Naomi Frisby, who has shadowed the Women’s Prize five years running, notes that this is Barker’s first ever shortlisting, which seems preposterous when you think about it, but makes Barker’s inclusion here particularly welcome and timely. I am also especially eager to read Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time.  I’ll plan to read as many of these longlisted titles as I can before the shortlist is announced on April 23rd, and with any luck I’ll be blogging about some of them here as I go along.  Here’s the full line-up:

H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker (Heinemann)

The Idiot – Elif Batuman (Cape)

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon (Borough)

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig (Grove)

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker)

Sight – Jessie Greengrass (John Murray)

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins)

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic)

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton)

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt (Tinder)

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert (Virago)

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal (Viking)

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward (Bloonsbury)

On a not entirely unrelated note, Anne Charnock and I made the front page of our local paper The Buteman this week, with a story about us both being shortlisted for the BSFA Awards. Great photo by Chris, and especially great to see it making the news on International Women’s Day!

Portrait of the Artist: Self & I by Matthew De Abaitua

“My mouth is full of blood but I’m not even angry. This is my true rite of passage: punched in the face I remain eminently reasonable. That is what marks me out as ready for the middle class: that I can defer gratification, stifle fury, for some putative future gain. I may be six foot two, fourteen stone of muscle and one stone of fat, but I will never be good at fighting because I will always have to calculate whether to hit back or not. Because there is no aspect of my life that a brawl improves, no problem that can be solved with violence. And yet, as a young man, you give up that aspect of your persona reluctantly, want to hint that you can put yourself about. Eddie could dish it out. In the riot at Cantril Farm, he fought hand-to-hand against the rioters for hours.”

For Will Self, it was a strange interlude. For Matthew De Abaitua, it was the beginning of everything.

“In the Nineties, everywhere – from a system of sea caves to a transit van looping around the M25, from a ruined abbey on the Yorkshire Moors to a loading bay in Shoreditch – was a great place to have a party. And our social relations were conducted as if we were at a long party, always intoxicated, with nothing taken too seriously, and all unpleasantness put off until tomorrow. 

Andy had stumbled on the vital truth about the Nineties: it may have been a soft-headed, heaving mass of meretricious triangulation but it was also a great place to have a party.”

In 1994 and fresh from a year on Malcolm Bradbury’s famous creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, Matthew De Abaitua is offered the apprenticeship of his dreams: a six-month stint as amanuensis to Will Self, living and working beside his employer in a rented cottage in rural Suffolk. Self is on the Granta List, the newly anointed enfant terrible of English letters. Bogged down in the quagmire of publicity and celebrity journalism’s New Glib, he is anxious to get started on a new fiction project. De Abaitua has not published anything yet. He knows only that he passionately – desperately – wants to be a writer. He hopes the next six months will change his life.

Self & I is a little classic. A unique insight into the mindset and working methods of one of the key writers to have emerged from the post-Thatcher years, it is also a manifesto, in a sense, for beginning writers, a wrestling over some of the questions of what it means to be a writer in today’s Britain. De Abaitua provides stunning chapters on his brief stint as a security guard in Liverpool’s docklands, his complex relationship with his working class background and the inevitable, inexorable decay of adolescent allegiances. Above all, his search for a subject – the ever-present conflict, in young writers, between talent and inexperience – is related in pitiless detail. Will Self emerges from the narrative as a curiously lonely, driven individual, relentlessly in pursuit of his goals and harried by his personal demons – a typical writer, in other words. De Abaitua struggles with doubt, finally coming out on top but bruised from the tussle. For this writer at least there is no such thing as a redemption arc. The war is ongoing.

For anyone who experienced the Nineties in Britain first hand, there will be plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here. De Abaitua captures the ridiculous self-entitlement of the time, the blindness-to-impending disaster, with wit and accuracy. There is also much to interest the science fiction reader. One of De Abaitua’s tasks as Self’s amanuensis was to transcribe hours of taped interviews between Self and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s pinpoint analysis of the intellectual decline of science fiction through the eighties – and De Abaitua’s ruminations upon it – provide some of the standout moments of the book for me, and anyone interested in current science fiction criticism should read this account.

Self & I is a candid and revealing portrait of a particular artist at a particular time. It is De Abaitua’s book far more than Self’s, and coming from a writer who has already provided us with some of the most original and brilliantly executed science fiction of the past decade, it should be counted as a significant achievement. We await his next project eagerly, and with anticipation.

Guérillères

“He has enslaved you by trickery, you who were great strong valiant. He has stolen your wisdom from you, he has closed your memory to what you were, he has made of you that which is not, which does not speak, which does not possess, which does not write. He has made you a vile and fallen creature. He has gagged abused and betrayed you by means of stratagems, he has stultified your understanding, he has woven around you a long list of defects that he declared essential to your well being, to your nature.”

(Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères 1969)

This week saw the launch of the Staunch book prize, an award for the best crime novel or thriller ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Its founder, the screenwriter Bridget Lawless, has stated that the idea for the prize was born out of her increasing discomfort with the level of violence – and routine violence at that – meted out to women in crime thrillers, be they on TV, in film or in novels. ‘[Books] are a source for so much material,’ Lawless says, ‘and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help’.

In the kingdom of crime fiction there are many mansions, and plenty worth exploring. Personally, I enjoy crime fiction because I enjoy mysteries, and the description of painstaking forensic work that is frequently involved in solving those mysteries. I enjoy the close focus on particular individuals, their histories and motivations. I enjoy the way such close focus can often be used to reveal wider truths about our society and ways of seeing. All of this and more is the stuff of crime fiction, which is why I read a lot of it. It would be wrong of me not to concede also that crime stories can be thrilling, that the adversarial nature of the set-up, that ancient and timeless conflict between protagonist and antagonist – however you may wish to cast them – provides a story scenario so compelling it is hard to resist, no matter how many times you might have encountered it before.

One subgenre of crime fiction I tend to avoid, however, is the serial killer thriller. There will be notable exceptions of course, but most serial killer thrillers are for me the novelistic equivalent of the slasher film in horror: formulaic and unutterably pointless. these films and books are not so much frightening as tedious, the product of dull imaginations and brain-wearying in the extreme. In recent years, I have started to find these kind of crime novels not just boring but actively offensive. As Lawless suggests in her rationale for the Staunch prize, women in serial killer thrillers are all too often simply cannon fodder, not so much characters as tropes, an excuse for the depiction of, well, more violence against women. Now, whenever I see a book blurb describe ‘a series of brutal murders, all young women’, I know that nine times out of ten the book in question will be a lazy book, a book whose hackneyed plot I have encountered too many times before, a book that will waste my time and test my patience.

Perhaps the worst aspect of such ‘thrillers’ is how often they try and masquerade as paeans to social justice: ‘Gee, we’ve got to catch this monster before he kills again!’

On the other hand, when confronted with something like the Staunch prize, I find myself instinctively reacting against any kind of prescription for what writers should or should not be choosing as their subject matter. For me, Lawless’s contention that ‘how we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there’ treads perilously close to Mary Whitehouse territory, the scares about what video nasties were supposedly doing to youth in the 1970s, the City of Westminster banning Cronenberg’s innocuous adaptation of Ballard’s Crash back in 1996.

Fiction is surely a reflection of what is going on in the real world, not the other way around, and the point with subject matter is not what that subject matter is, but how it is used. When asked her opinion of the Staunch prize, the crime writer Val McDermid maintained that it is ‘entirely possible to write about [violence against women] without being exploitative or gratuitous… My take on writing [about this] is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’.

The announcement of the Staunch prize this week happened to coincide with my reading of Cara Hoffman’s astounding 2011 debut So Much Pretty. Someone recommended Hoffman to me a couple of years ago, and now I’ve finally got round to reading her, my main feeling is one of frustration that she’s not better known. Hoffman based So Much Pretty on a real-life abduction case that she investigated while working as a journalist. The resulting novel is one of the most compelling and best executed crime novels I have read in recent years. It is also one of the most chilling. So Much Pretty is essentially the story of three women – a journalist, a gifted high school student, a waitress in a local diner – and the way their histories interweave. The novel is set in upstate New York, in a small and supposedly close-knit farming community that hides bitter social division and personal tensions. As much as anything, So Much Pretty is a characterisation of that community. Hoffman tells her story through a series of interviews, essays and personal accounts that build a detailed and intimate portrait of small town life and politics, the often arbitrary nature of the most horrific crimes, the habits of denial that allow such crimes to be perpetrated, the way such denial continues to shape and to define the social milieu in which we exist.

Although Hoffman chooses to depict very little violence on the page, the violence we glimpse between the lines is devastating. That anyone could come away from this book without sensing Hoffman’s anger at the violence – daily, routinely – done to women would beggar belief. As a polemic, So Much Pretty is excoriating. As a book – as a way of telling a story – it is brilliant. As a crime novel it is important. This is a book that needed to be written, a book people – and I’ll go one further here and say men especially – need to read. I would also say we need more novels of this calibre, that show this level of skill and bravery in tackling their difficult subject matter, not fewer.

I am not ‘against’ the Staunch prize, quite the opposite. As a book prize, it’s not trying to ban anything, but to draw attention to something. If it can draw attention to books that find new ways of telling crime stories – new ways of seeing, as Lawless hopes – then the endeavour will have been worthwhile.

For the writer though, the only duty is to tell the story they are drawn to telling as well as they can. To think about the subject matter they have chosen, and before they take that leap, to perhaps ask themselves why exactly they have chosen it.

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Tips for writers

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

William H. Gass 1924 – 2017

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (1960)

The first piece of fiction I ever read by Algis Budrys was his 1958 short story ‘The Edge of the Sea’. My memory was that I’d encountered it as part of Brian Aldiss’s Penguin Science Fiction anthology, but looking down the table of contents I see this is not so: Budrys’s contribution to that anthology is the better-known ‘The End of Summer’, a story I also loved, but that did not perplex and captivate me to quite the same extent as ‘The Edge of the Sea’, a weirdly abstract tale in which a lone man struggles to retrieve a weighty and perhaps alien artefact from the incoming tide. In many ways, ‘The Edge of the Sea’ could be read as a sketch for the longer, more complicated novel that was to follow two years later and that is probably Budrys’s best-known work: a man alone, big dumb object, existential horror.

The premise of Rogue Moon is simple: a mysterious Formation has been discovered on the moon, some sort of alien artefact in the form of a labyrinth. From the outside, the dimensions of this object appear finite – passing through and out the other side should be a simple matter. For scientific genius Ed Hawks, the object on the moon has become a life’s obsession. As the inventor of a matter duplication process, he has provided the US navy with the perfect means not only for sending men (the idea that women might also make suitable astronauts is not even considered here) into space, but also for discovering the ultimate purpose of the lethal Formation. Explorers subjected to Hawks’s process are placed into a kind of lucid sleep, while their digital twin is projected to a remote location – in this case the moon – to complete the mission. As the novel opens, none of these duplicated explorers have managed to survive inside the labyrinth for more than a couple of minutes. What is more, the shock of experiencing their own death, even by proxy, has in every instance propelled the surviving astronaut back on Earth into a catatonic stupor.

Hawks is in despair at finding a solution. But now the project’s chief PR man Vincent Connington claims to have discovered the perfect candidate, a man whose relationship with fear falls somewhere between addiction and disdain. Al Barker is a professional daredevil with a jaded attitude to life and to humanity. He doesn’t care much about the ethical implications of being duplicated – just show him the labyrinth, people. But as both Barker and Hawks will discover, new technology often comes with unforeseen side effects, and how those side effects are dealt with often lies closer to the heart of the story than the outward premise.

In Rogue Moon, Budrys was trying out what was then a wholly new approach to science fiction. Budrys’s novel constantly shifts the action – the astronauts, the moon, the labyrinth – into the background, while insisting that the human concerns – the antagonism between Connington and Hawks, the nascent relationship between Hawks and the young fashion designer Elizabeth Cummings, Al Barker’s spiritual nihilism – are placed front and centre. It is not until the final sequence – Hawks’s and Barker’s joint journey into the Formation – that the sense of wonder that is implicit in Rogue Moon‘s premise is allowed to surface.

In its foregrounding of philosophy and such novelistic concerns as literary realism, Rogue Moon can reasonably be argued as an important precursor of science fiction’s New Wave. Budrys is clearly seeking to show new ways in which science fiction can be radical, and for this reason alone the novel is interesting. Budrys clearly struggles with the long form though, and there are portions of Rogue Moon that come over as clunky and obvious: heavy philosophical discussions delivered in the manner of a lecture, vast tracts of exposition, characters firing off deeply meaningful soliloquies as if their interlocutor existed solely as a repository for information rather than as a participant in the drama.

The gender politics of Rogue Moon are also pretty much unsalvageable. Budrys tries hard to grapple with The Question of Woman, yet still cannot resist having Al Barker’s girlfriend Claire Pack – callously vampish in a Ballardian kind of way – deliver most of her dialogue while clothed in a bikini, and sets Hawks up as being immediately, irresistibly attractive to a woman half his age and with no purpose in the narrative other than to sympathise with her hero’s existential agony and make him nourishing meals. Hawks – like Budrys – obviously wants to be better at this stuff than he is, but keeps coming off like Boris Johnson trying to get to grips with racism in modern Britain:

“Women have always fascinated me. As a kid I did the usual amount of experimenting. It didn’t take me long to find out life wasn’t like what happened in those mimeographed stories we had circulating around the high school. No, there was something else – what, I don’t know, but there was something about women. I don’t mean the physical thing. I mean some special thing about women, some purpose that I couldn’t grasp. What bothered me was that here were these other intelligent organisms, in the same world with men, and there had to be a purpose for that intelligence. If all women were for was the continuance of the race, what did they need intelligence for? A single set of instincts would have done just as well. And as a matter of fact, the instincts are there, so what was the intelligence for? There were plenty of men to take care of making the physical environment comfortable. That wasn’t what women were for. At least, it wasn’t what they had to have intelligence for… But I never found out. I’ve always wondered.” (RM p 124, Masterworks edition)

You see what I mean? Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that when I went in search of better discussions of gender equality in 1960s fiction I struggled to find any – or at least any written by men. I started out thinking that the gender issues in Rogue Moon must be a science fiction problem, but no, just a men problem. It turns out that for any real insight into societal attitudes towards women at the time Rogue Moon was published – women as individuals or as artists or indeed any aspect of gender politics – you’re going to need to read some women writers.

The unthinkingly human-centric (and for that read Western-centric) aspect of Rogue Moon is also troubling, especially now. Budrys seems unable to imagine a universe whose fate is not to be conquered by the Right Stuff, striding out to the stars and all that, just as Hawks and Connington cannot imagine not taking the moon Formation apart (and thereby destroying it) to see how it works. It would be another ten years before Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explored the event site in Roadside Picnic, suggesting in the process that for a species in its existential infancy, a policy of ‘look, don’t touch’ might be a more prudent approach to the exploration of our environment.

And yet. Although as a novel Rogue Moon is only partially successful, it is still worth reading, perhaps even because of its own inner contradictions and turmoil, In Algis Budrys we see – always – a writer who cares about his subject matter, We sense that Hawks’s struggle with questions of mortality, eternity and identity are also his own. This is a vital book – a book in which the ideas are alive and evolving and of ongoing importance to the writer. In a work like this – as in much ground-breaking science fiction – the rough edges and raw nerve are part of the appeal. Novels should not be perfect artefacts – the best remain, almost inevitably, works in progress.

The core ideas in Rogue Moon have clearly been influential on other writers – the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, Stanislaw Lem in Solaris, even Christopher Priest, more than thirty years later, in The Prestige. More than that, though, when Rogue Moon hits the mark we are offered glimpses of a literary approach that is unique to science fiction, both marvellously timeless and fascinatingly of its time. The passages dealing with Hawks’s and Barker’s entry into the labyrinth show Budrys at his best – and present us with a vision that is unearthly and breathtaking:

The wall shimmered and bubbled from their feet up into the black sky with its fans of violet light. Flowers of frost rose up out of the plain where their shadows fell, standing highest where they were furthest from the edges and so least in contact with the light. The frost formed humped, crude white copies of their armour, and, as Hawks and Barker moved against the wall, it lay for one moment open and exposed, then burst silently from steam pressure, each outflying fragment of discard trailing a long, delicate strand as it ate itself up and the entire explosion reluctantly subsided. (RM p 161)

In spite of its flaws, I became rather fond of Rogue Moon. A full fortnight after reading, it’s still very much present, which leaves Budrys’s mission as a writer successfully accomplished. I’ll be returning to Budrys’s work, no question, and hope to report my findings here in due course.

And now: thinking about Strange Horizons

As some of you may know, Strange Horizons are currently in the thick of their annual fund drive. Strange Horizons, one of the longest-running speculative fiction magazines on the internet, is staffed entirely by volunteers. Profits from the fund drive are spent on paying writers, expanding the scope and variety of current content, and initiating new projects.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was Strange Horizons that inspired me to get back into writing science fiction criticism. From the moment I first became aware of the magazine in the middle 2000s, the quality, diversity and insight of SH’s critical content was a stand-out for me. I’ve now been reading Strange Horizons regularly for a decade (gulp) and I’ve seen the range and depth of its coverage increase, gaining new confidence and insight year on year. Strange Horizons now boasts a quite remarkable roster of reviewers, both old (and not so old) regulars and an increasing number of new voices. I am enormously proud to be one of them. Again, it is no exaggeration to say that I cannot imagine the landscape of SFF without Strange Horizons.

Please give what you can to keep this remarkable institution running – or help by spreading the word. A growing number of our most inspirational fiction writers can count a sale to Strange Horizons as their first published story. As a reader, writer and critic, I know i’ll keep returning to Strange Horizons, that that first glimpse of the new issue will continue to be a highlight of every Monday.

Just in case you need more convincing, here is a brief selection of some of my personal SH highlights in critical writing from 2017 so far:

The Unthinkability of Climate Change: thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement by Vandana Singh. Possibly the most important essay Strange Horizons has yet published.

Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War edited by Douglas Lain by Samira Nadkarni. Again, a vital piece of work, raising important questions about the Western-centric nature of so many SF dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios and war writing generally.

Blair Witch by Shannon Fay. As a massive fan of the original film, and one who still can’t quite believe this pointless sequel was even green-lighted, I found Fay’s analysis highly enjoyable and critically spot on.

Alien: Covenant by Mazin Saleem. Still on film, I’ve rarely had more fun reading a review, especially a review of a film I hated. Saleem’s knowledge, sense of irony and sheer joy in his subject matter is a rare delight. For another side of Saleem’s criticism, see his equally excellent review of Hassan Blasim’s anthology Iraq+100.

The Queue by Bazma Abdel Aziz by Gautam Bhatia. I’ve not read this book yet but it is very much on my reading list, and I can’t not mention Gautam Bhatia, who is one of the finest critics on SH’s roster. I live in hope that he will agree to be a Sharke when the Sharkes swim again because that would be something to see…

Thank you, Strange Horizons, and all who sail in her. Here’s looking forward to another year of great fiction, great criticism, great SFF.

Agents of Dreamland

“The best foreshadowing never seems like foreshadowing.”

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

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

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

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

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

An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.