Category Archives: writers

Come in Howard, your time is up

Cthulhu BarneyChris’s ‘Howard’ was awarded to him in 1996, for The Prestige. Although he was delighted to accept the award itself, he always considered the trophy to be a thing of unsurpassed ugliness, and until I went up there to fetch it so he could take this photograph, the unfortunate effigy was residing in our loft.


  1. The trophy is hideous – there’s no denying it.
  2. The World Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award trophy are not the same thing. The former is a highly regarded juried award, designed to recognise the year’s most outstanding works of fantasy literature. The latter is a pewter statuette on a wooden base.
  3. Changing the form of the latter does not in any way diminish, impugn or invalidate the worth of the former.
  4. H. P. Lovecraft was a horror writer, and a niche horror writer at that. He rarely travelled anywhere and when he did he didn’t enjoy the experience. His literary output was similarly restricted. He also held racist views that would be considered extreme by most standards. The idea that Lovecraft can be an appropriate emblem for ‘world fantasy’ is wrongheaded, and that’s putting it mildly.
  5. Given that an increasing number of readers, critics and above all World Fantasy Award nominees are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of Lovecraft’s image being used as the figurehead for the World Fantasy Award, it is difficult to understand how anyone who truly cares about the award as a standard-bearer for world fantasy can themselves remain comfortable with it.

A dear friend of mine won a Howard this week. Many other good friends and esteemed colleagues have either won or been nominated for Howards in previous years. I understand nostalgia – I’m British, for goodness’ sake, our engines run on the stuff. What I don’t understand is why there are people who seem to be conflating the current physical representation of the World Fantasy Award – Gahan Wilson’s bust of H. P. Lovecraft – with the award itself. Why many of these same people seem determined to read the recent WFCB decision to retire the Howard as an attack on Lovecraft’s literary legacy is beyond me.

I’m not a Lovecraft expert but I have read him. I consume his work sparingly these days – too much at once and the overblown, repetitive drone of it can become tedious – but there are things about his oeuvre that I find consistently inspiring. His disturbingly persuasive conception of ‘cosmic horror’, of course, but for me personally as a writer, Lovecraft’s obsessive portrayal of introverted scholars ferreting their way through dusty libraries and untold reams of obscure documents in their feverish search for evidence of Elder God involvement in human affairs awakens more than a shiver of horrified excitement each time I revisit him. Lovecraft’s influence on weird fiction is far-reaching and ongoing. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the kind of wilful negation of documented fact that tries to insist that Lovecraft the man wasn’t really a racist, but a product of his time.

H. P. Lovecraft was certainly a complex, conflicted and frequently misanthropic individual. There is an argument to be made that some of the more outlandish expressions of his racist views arose either directly or indirectly from his general loathing and mistrust of the human condition. But to pass off the views themselves as anything but egregious, to soft-soap them as little more than the ubiquitous background racism that was then endemic is an act of self-delusion, or to put it less kindly, a lie.

“The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.”

(Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926. More here if you can stomach it.) 

We can choose to call this ignorance, we can choose to call this paranoia, we can choose to call this heightened sensitivity to social change. We MUST call it racism. It’s contemptible and vile and cannot be gainsaid. Admitting these things does not mean we have to consign Lovecraft’s oeuvre to the cultural scrapheap. Those who feel the need to constantly apologise for Lovecraft would be advised to ask themselves why they rush to do that. His work stands by itself – it doesn’t need our apologies. There can be no apology or excuse for the views on display in that letter to Belknap Long. These two facts stand side by side and we have to live with them. Any discussion of Lovecraft’s work that does not acknowledge the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s racist worldview is incomplete.

Far more worrying, at this point in time, than Lovecraft’s racism – Lovecraft died almost eighty years ago, remember, he’s beyond pamphleteering – is the number of notable voices in the field of horror fiction who clearly consider it more important to retain a particular incarnation of an award trophy than to work towards any kind of true understanding of why an increasing number of readers, writers and critics now find the signal that trophy sends inappropriate and offensive. That certain authors and editors should abuse the platform they are privileged to occupy by dismissing people’s rightful anger and discomfort with the Howard as shrill whining or malicious censorship is, quite frankly, appalling.

It is also the most urgent demonstration of the need for change.

ON LOVECRAFT: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq could hardly be cited as the most reliable witness in the case of Lovecraft’s racism, to say the least, but as one writer exploring his passion for another there’s no doubt that Houellebecq’s extended essay makes for mesmerising reading. As a bonus, it also includes an introduction by Stephen King and two HPL originals.

ON THE NEED FOR CHANGE: Lovecraft’s Racism and the World Fantasy Award Statuette by Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2011:

“I too am deeply honored to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It feels so so so right and so so good. The awards jury was clearly progressive and looking in a new direction. I am the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel since its inception in 1975. Lovecraft is probably rolling in his grave. Or maybe, having become spirit, his mind has cleared of the poisons and now understands the err of his ways. Maybe he is pleased that a book set in and about Africa in the future has won an award crafted in his honor. Yeah, I’ll go with that image.”

World Fantasy Awards – what did I say? by Sofia Samatar, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2014:

“I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.”

THE NEXT GENERATION: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has provided inspiration for new writers even from the time HPL was still in the active process of creating it. Indeed, Lovecraft encouraged and welcomed the idea of others working in his universe. The Mythos is, if anything, more popular than ever before, with writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin R. Kiernan producing works that – to be perfectly honest – often outshine ‘the master’ in their psychological acuity and stylistic virtuosity. There is a lifetime’s worth of superb material to be explored here, but for new voices it’s worth checking out Paula Guran’s anthology New Cthulhu and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent all-women anthology She Walks in Shadows (gorgeous cover, too). For those seeking an instant online tentacular fix, Ruthanna Emrys’s ‘The Litany of Earth’ is a fine example of how skilfully Lovecraft’s prejudices can be turned on their head. The tale is of of one Aphra Marsh, and some deeply traumatic memories of a town called Innsmouth… Another favourite recent story comes from Michael Cisco, one of the most brilliant and consistently underrated writers in the field of weird. It’s actually an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Unlanguage, but reads perfectly well as a standalone short story. The Mythos isn’t referenced directly but it doesn’t need to be. Needless to say I am eager to read Unlanguage in its entirety.

Crime blog #11

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
(T. S. Eliot The Waste Land)

carthage oatesIt still amazes me, how critics still seem not to ‘get’ Joyce Carol Oates, how often her prodigious talent is spoken of dismissively, in belittling terms – ‘oh, Joyce Carol Oates, there’s just so much of it!’ – as if her very prodigiousness, the prolific expression of her talent could be a reason to reject it as something freakish and therefore unworthy in some way. 

‘She writes so much – is any of it any good?’

I’ve heard this said, seen it written. It often crosses my mind, and seems increasingly clear to me, that were Joyce Carol Oates a man her position as a ‘great American novelist’ would be assured. The broadsheets and the book blogs would all have been arguing over Carthage this summer instead of Purity. I wish they were. I wish they would. I think Oates is one of the greatest writers currently working, and I think that all the more because her books are not perfect. To me, each new novel (and I’ve probably read about half her output) feels like the next chapter, the next essay in an ongoing experiment, an ongoing project to discover the possibilities of the modern novel.

Some of these chapters are ragged, some are too long, some are just astounding. All are meant, involved, and acutely intelligent, the most complete expression of her intent the writer could manage at the time. All are worth reading, and all will stay with you, a quality which, surely, is one of the defining factors of great literature.

Fans of speculative fiction and horror in particular will be familiar with Oates’s interest in the gothic. Her most recent essay in the horror genre, 2013’s The Accursed, was a masterpiece of ambition and reach, spanning an American century, examining the guilt and tarnish at the heart of American privilege. I’ve written about the ‘Lovecraft chapter’ in The Accursed before, and it remains a shining memory.  I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the book’s sharp and canny mirroring of a perhaps-best-forgotten yet nonetheless fascinating horror novel of the 1970s, John Farris’s All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, turning the embarrassingly misused tropes of that novel against each other, like wild dogs.

But Oates is just as interested in crime fiction as she is in horror, and it’s precisely novels like Carthage – ambiguous, labyrinthine, incautious, imprecise – that I’m forever bemoaning the scarcity of in the genre.

Some of those who care to examine Carthage as a work of crime fiction might be tempted to define it as one of those (always intriguing) works – Patricia Highsmith made a speciality of them – which pose as crime fiction but lack its defining element: that is, a crime. This is one way of looking at the book, but I would counter that Carthage is a story about a murder – just not the murder that is foregrounded.

The crime is fully described. A person is arrested and imprisoned. These two events are not connected in the way that they should be.

Carthage tells the story of Cressida Mayfield, a precocious and alienated nineteen-year-old who goes missing from her home in Carthage, upstate New York. We learn of the desperate search for this lost young woman, of the violence that appears to have precipitated her disappearance, the parents, the sister, the suspect (who happens to have been engaged to the sister), the half-truths and evasions, the blank spaces in memory and chronology that form the core material of such addictive mysteries. Fans of Oates will instantly be catapulted back to her earlier examination of this subject – the devastating impact of violent crime upon a previously stable and contented household – in her 1996 masterpiece We Were the Mulvaneys.

This first section of the novel is then cut off in mid-stream, with no resolution in sight. We tun the page and the jolt of unexpected revelation is physically palpable. What follows is strange, and much less easy to define: hundreds of pages of back-and-forth story. Gradually we learn everything, and perhaps more than we felt we needed to know, about Cressida Mayfield and what happened to her. The last people to find out what we have come to accept as the facts of the case are those most directly affected: those whose lives these facts have ripped apart.

I loved this book, even when I wasn’t loving it, even when I was wishing Oates would get to – or rather get back to – the point. I loved it because it is the kind of text that reminds readers that literature can aspire to be more than simply a pastime, an entertainment. That it should ask questions to which the answers are not always knowable or uncontested. That it should present itself in forms that can appear unfinished, as if the writer were still working on the manuscript up until the point where it needed to be delivered, still enmeshed in the world of those characters and the moral and psychological problems they represent.

Texts like these – where the writer’s engagement with the subject remains visible to the reader – I find to be amongst the most rewarding and significant.

I also found it odd, reading Carthage. There’s some stuff in it that overlaps, quite a bit, with what I’ve been writing myself these past eighteen months. I’ll never be Oates, of course, and the backgrounds of our work – American, British – are so very different. But I can’t help but feel that pulse of an interest simultaneously shared, a synchronicity that is disconcerting as much as it is satisfying.

Mainly though, I’m just left wanting to read more Oates.

This is why we love Strange Horizons

core of the sun.sinisalo“People like to think there is a very sharp line between animal and human being, and I disagree. I think there are lots of little steps between the two, and between each other, and we really shouldn’t think that we are somehow separate from nature. We should recognise that we are animals, that we are hierarchical pack animals and that dominates our behaviour every day, in the ways that we are competitive and so on, but we don’t want to think about it. Our originality and uniqueness is an illusion. I want to have a prominent role for nature and the environment and other creatures, so that we understand that we can’t survive on this planet by ourselves.”

This quote is taken from Niall Harrison’s wonderful interview with the Finnish science fiction writer Johanna Sinisalo, just one of the items of special bonus content that SH has been putting up as part of its annual fund drive rewards scheme.

Sinisalo is, to my mind, one of the most original, committed and intelligent SFF writers currently working – I reviewed her 2014 novel The Blood of Angels for SH here – the kind of writer I feel privileged and blessed to have access to (thank you, translators!) Sinisalo demonstrates all by herself how important it is for those of us in UK/US/ANZ SFF to become aware of and immersed in writers from non-Anglophone backgrounds, how they enrich the genre and give it substance and question its assumptions. It is writers like Sinisalo who provide the rocket fuel that propels us all forward.

Right from the beginning, it has always been a large part of Strange Horizons’s remit, to promote new approaches and diverse talent, to keep science fiction on the radical edge of literature, as is its rightful place. Strange Horizons is a vital and irreplaceable part of the speculative literary landscape, and I would encourage anyone reading this to make a donation to the fund drive. SH is run by volunteers, and its contributors are paid entirely through donations – by you, in other words. Please help keep up the good work.

I’m beyond excited that Johanna Sinisalo has a new novel out soon, also that she’ll be a Guest of Honour at the 2017 Worldcon. If, like me, you can’t wait that long to read more of her, you can find a transcription of her 2015 GoH speech at this year’s Archipelacon here.

A Little Life – altogether too small?

littlelife.yanagA Little Life, the 700 pp second novel from Kitschies Golden Tentacle nominee Hanya Yanagihara, has been greeted by ecstatic reviews, in the US especially. Even in the UK, where the book’s reception has been a little more muted, the critics seem to be in broad agreement that, in spite of its flaws, the novel is something of a masterpiece. A Little Life is currently the bookies’ favourite to take the Booker prize, and readers especially have warmed to the book, losing themselves in its extended narrative like rabbits in a warren. I’ve seen a large number of reader reviews stating that for them, A Little Life is one of the most affecting books they’ve ever read.

I don’t get it. As someone who loved Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, A Little Life was one of the novels of 2015 I was most looking forward to. To say I’ve been disappointed would be something of an understatement. The People in the Trees was characterised, above all, by its author’s masterful control of her material: a heinously unreliable narrator, brilliantly drawn, a grasp of form, of the novel as a conceit that has not at all ridiculously been compared with Nabokov’s, a sense of place so vibrant and detailed the reader leaves the book convinced of the reality of everything in it, and a story so compelling it remains with me still as one of the literary highlights of last year. Yanagihara has stated that The People in the Trees took her more than a decade to write and it shows: her passionate attachment to the manuscript is visible at every juncture, and the result – a provoking, terse, brilliantly observed narrative of speculation – is entirely worthy of the time investment, both hers as writer and ours as reader.

A Little Life, on the other hand, took just eighteen months to write, and again, it shows. What we have here, it seems to me, is more like a vast, working outline for a novel, a ream or two of notes. Enthusiasm for the project blazes through, and occasionally we are caught up in the rush of that enthusiasm, but this is not the finished article. Not the superbly finished article that The People in the Trees was, at any rate. In short, it’s a decent enough first draft – decent enough to catch the interest, worth reworking definitely, but no one (unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates) can complete a 720-page behemoth of a book in just eighteen months and hope for it to be her best work.

I’m not going to go overboard in rehashing the plot here – plenty of people have done so already – but briefly what we have is the story of four friends, room-mates in college, who progress from renting scuzzy apartments in Lower Manhattan to forging conveniently meteoric success in their chosen careers, namely art, architecture, acting and law. Things toddle along for a while. The boys get richer and go to more parties. We gradually discover that two of the four (Malcolm and JB) are pretty much sidekicks, that the story (such that it is) is mostly about Willem and Jude, and Jude in particular. In spite of his success as a lawyer, and his universal belovedness among his friends, Jude has a troubled past, and injuries to both body and mind that have left him crippled. A Little Life presents the gradual uncovering of Jude’s secrets.

The whole ensemble would have been improved a millionfold by making everyone in it less offensively, less boringly rich. The easy accession to success, to wealth, to an entirely unconflicted symbiosis with the jet-setting, gourmet-fed, gorgeously housed capitalism of the highest-end American glossies robs the novel’s ongoing present of agency, tension or of anything more than a passing, disconsolate curiosity. Is this meant to be inspirational, allegorical, what?? It certainly isn’t cautionary – the text seems as at ease with its prevailing attitudes as do the characters that populate it. Everyone loves these guys. everyone knows them or wants to know them. Is this the American Way? For a tiny minority, maybe. But to put it in context for UK readers, how would you feel about a novel in which the four protagonists were a corporate lawyer who specialised in exonerating multinational corporations from allegations of environmental vandalism, an architect hell-bent on levelling large parts of the East End to make way for luxury apartment complexes, an artist who made it his life’s work to portray – uncritically – members of the economic elite, and – let’s say Jude Law? (No offence to JL but his persona as a cypher for Willem’s fits more or less exactly.)

If you were me, you’d probably want to punch everyone in it. Moreover, the whole endeavour would be doomed to instant cultural irrelevance, not to say ridicule.

It would have been so simple to make these guys ‘normal’, to introduce some genuine struggle and conflict into their lives. Not to do so seems one of the oddest authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered.

The lack of any discernible story, conflict or point is not A Little Life‘s only problem, however. For me, the manner in which it is told – endless swathes of the most colourless, tedious form of exposition, punctuated by desultory minor episodes of what passes for action – is the most telling indication of what I’ll call first draft syndrome: the author telling herself what the novel is about (fine) and then forgetting to shape, refine, and above all prune, prune, PRUNE the damn thing into the form of an actual novel. The excess of padding in A Little Life could comfortably fill several king-sized (ideal for one of Malcolm’s boutique apartments in fact) sofas. ‘This happened, then that happened, then the other happened. Then Jude remembered he had a friend who had a private plane, so he wouldn’t be late for their reunion dinner in Paris after all’. Whatever.

Some critics have commented on the novel’s atemporality, the fact that there’s precious little sense of place, no mention of politics, presidents, AIDS, 9/11, indeed anything that might have given A Little Life a greater cultural, geographical or sociological resonance, so I won’t repeat those observations here except to say amen.

I could write a whole separate essay on the portrayal of women in A Little Life (or at least I could if I’d been arsed to take proper notes as I went along). I don’t think it would be unfair to state that women have been almost entirely erased from Yanagihara’s narrative. Where they do exist, women are either saintly helpmeets (Julia, Ana, Sophie) or comical walk-on lesbians. If the male homosexual relationship is the main focus of interest (one reviewer even refers to A Little Life as ‘the great gay novel‘ – I think they’re completely wrong, I think A Little Life shoots as wide of the mark here as it does in other respects, but that discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay) that’s one thing, but it in no way explains why the novel goes in for such wholesale belittling of lesbians and lesbian relationships. ‘A certain kind of moustachioed lesbian’, ‘like a certain kind of lesbian couple’, ‘i knew it would only be a matter of time before you two ended up like a pair of old lesbians – the only thing missing is the cat’. I stress I’m quoting from memory here, but there really is a lot of stuff in precisely this vein, and I’m asking why??? I for one got roundly sick of it. Indeed the book seemed strewn with the kind of casual sexism that left me blinking in bemusement. I might not have noticed it so much, had the four central male characters been more interesting or more compellingly written. But they just weren’t.

There is some good stuff here. The scenes following the traumatic event described on p 627 (I’m avoiding spoilers here, because what happens at this point genuinely did surprise and affect me and I wouldn’t want to deny that unexpectedness to anyone else) and dealing with the nature of grief, the psychological motivations and self-controlling mechanisms behind anorexia, self-harm and suicidal depression are very well drawn indeed: unflinching, convincing and necessary. As everywhere in this novel, the potential for greatness is strikingly evident. Which makes it all the more of a pity that the block of marble has only been rough-cut, and not fully sculpted.

I do get why readers have enjoyed this novel. The experience of reading A Little Life is not unlike watching a TV miniseries. Once you get even a little bit invested in the characters, the whole thing rolls along more or less unassisted and it’s difficult to opt out. For a novel of this length, the hours you put in (I made sure I read fifty pages a day, just to make sure the book didn’t dominate my life for weeks and weeks) pass surprisingly quickly. The relationship between Willem and Jude is touching and – in places – well drawn. At the level of simply reading, even the stodgy exposition can work reassuringly, being reminiscent of the feeling you might remember from being read aloud to as a child. Readers like to follow characters through the course of their lives and travails – that’s why the Bildungsroman is a classic form and still popular. A Little Life, in its way, is a classic family saga.

Nothing wrong with any of that, and there is no denying the book is, even if only for its bizarre missteps, memorable. But there is, I feel, something wrong with the unequivocal praise that has been heaped upon this novel. It is ambitious, but it mostly fails in its ambition. It believes it has a remarkable story to tell, but for a greater proportion of its run-time it does not tell it very well, thus rendering it, ironically, unremarkable. In sum, I don’t think A Little Life is anywhere near as good as people seem to think it is, certainly it’s not as good as Yanagihara’s first novel. It does have ‘Booker book’ written all over it, though, so the bookies at least are on to a winner…

Dead Letters

A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:

“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow… 

Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”

I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.

At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.

Nina Dead letter 96


And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.

I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.

I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.

This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.

I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…

The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:


The Green Letter                          Steven Hall

Over to You                                   Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam                                Joanne Harris

Ausland                                         Alison Moore

Wonders to Come                       Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer                             Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game                        Ramsey Campbell

Is-and                                            Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse                         Andrew Lane

Gone Away                                  Muriel Gray

Astray                                           Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives               Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel                      Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N                                      Nicholas Royle

Change Management              Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants                              Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville 

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere           Kirsten Kaschock


Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Man Booker Longlist 2015

Awards again, and after days of heady anticipation at what might be on there, I found myself scanning this year’s Booker Prize longlist as it was revealed yesterday with something approaching gloom. The more I looked the more disappointed I felt, and yet I found it difficult to articulate clearly why this might be. There was no book (well, perhaps one) I could point to that I felt shouldn’t be on the list. The line-up was, as some commentators have pointed out, one of the most encouraging in terms of diversity and gender parity that we have so far seen from the Booker. So why did the longlist leave me underwhelmed?

I could of course point to the list’s very low speculative fiction quotient as a source of dissatisfaction. There is only one novel of SFF interest in evidence, and that novel, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, is one of the most disappointing I’ve read all year. Smaill is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer but as a novel The Chimes is as weak as water, a book that is completely overshadowed by its derivative second half. What with the exceptional novels of literary SF that could have been chosen instead – Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me, Sara Taylor’s The Shore to name but three – I couldn’t help asking myself which of the judges had insisted on pushing The Chimes. One who loved the use of musical terminology and who by some fluke happened never to have read a single dystopia or YA novel? Some readers will know what it costs me to say this, but I would rather have seen Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things on the Booker longlist than The Chimes. I couldn’t stand the Faber but I couldn’t mistake its ambition either. The Chimes is just bland.

[EDIT: someone has very kindly pointed me towards this fascinating review at Locus, in which Paul di Filippo (very convincingly I might add) compares Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with PKD and particularly with Ballard, which reminds me that I really should have mentioned Tom McCarthy in this discussion. Booker junkies will well remember 2010, when McCarthy’s C made the shortlist and was hailed as a great modernist gamechanger for doing so. I remember C with great affection – the prose is superb, refined and clear and pure as Caithness crystal – and looking back on that 2010 shortlist now it seems the best book on there by a marathon’s distance and obviously should have won. Which brings me to the point about Tom McCarthy and the Booker, and the reason I subconsciously sidelined him in my thinking: Satin Island is clearly the sacrificial lamb on this longlist, the single curt nod to modernism the judges felt compelled to deliver or else fall foul of the usual criticisms about the Booker being hidebound and conservative. Satin Island stands proud from the overall tone and tenor of the shortlist as a whole like a pulled stitch in an elaborate tapestry. McCarthy will not be allowed to win any more than he was in 2010. I doubt he will even be allowed to progress to the shortlist this time. Still, the prompting towards di Philippo’s review has reminded me that I need to read Satin Island – in fact I’ve just ordered it – and here’s hoping I’ve been totally wrong and unfair in prejudging the judges!]

It would be wrong to put my disappointment down to SF-related disgruntlement alone though, especially given that the Booker could hardly be described as a prize that centres its attention on speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the main reason I felt disappointed was simply because the longlist was not the longlist I would have chosen. It was the same with the Clarke earlier this year. Plenty of people loved that list. I found it stolidly centrist, a representation not of the hardscrabble edgelands of the genre but of its commercial heartland. The progressive edge of that heartland, to be sure, but still nothing you could point to (except, ironically, the Faber!) as actively adventurous. I suppose my feelings about this particular Booker longlist are somewhat similar, compounded by the fact that the Booker submissions process is now so tortuous and preferential that we cannot even be sure which novels were allowed to be in contention in the first place. I know that Clarke Award chairman Tom Hunter has sometimes agonized over publishing the Clarke Award submissions list: does anyone really gain anything from seeing this list, or does it just open another big can of worms? I assure you, Tom, the transparency surrounding the Clarke’s award process is one of its strongest attributes and should not be compromised.

My disappointment with the Booker longlist list is certainly no more valid than anyone else’s excitement. It does, however, serve as a reminder that all juried prize selections are a compromise at some level, the sum of a small number of personal proclivities and a healthy dose of mutual horse-trading. It has often occurred to me that most prize selections are probably more instructive in retrospect, offering an overview of a literary scene whose trends and peculiarities become properly visible only with distance. Within the context of its given year, the Booker longlist is always going to look pretty random.

Which is all the more reason to get as many random snapshots as we possibly can. Rather than be depressed by a prize selection, how much more interesting and productive to use it is a starting point for exploration and discussion. As ordinary readers we don’t have the resources to award writers the lucrative prize monies that the Booker, for example, is able to offer. What we can do though is share our passion for the books and writers that excite us. Which is why I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and put up my own personal preferred Booker longlist just for the fun of it, as selected from those of the eligible novels I’ve read, those I have sampled and others that I’ve heard about and can’t wait to get stuck into.

1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One from the official longlist, one I think will almost certainly make the shortlist, and one I definitely intend to read before the winner is announced. ‘I don’t think it was a book that anyone loved’, said Yanagihara in a recent interview of her first novel, The People in the Trees. Well, she’s wrong in at least one instance, because I did love that novel. I loved the form it took – fictional (auto)biographies are a favourite of mine, especially when combined with fictitious footnotes by a fictitious editor, and recounted by an unreliable narrator as superbly drawn as Yanagihara’s odious Norton Perina. For me The People in the Trees remains firmly on my favourites list for 2014. Yanagihara’s follow-up, A Little Life has had some of the most rapturous reader reviews I’ve seen in 2015 and with the excellence of Yanagihara’s writing in mind I can’t say I’m surprised. The premise doesn’t grab me nearly as much, I have to say – from where I’m sitting now, the novel seems to have a little too much of The Goldfinch about it for my liking, a baggy-monster-y, Franzen-y, conventional-narrative-y kind of a novel, the kind that all too often has me thinking:  this is great to read but what’s the point?? My curiosity has the better of me, though, and I’m going to have to read it just so I can make up my own mind. We’ve already pre-ordered it, so watch this space.

2) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Another from the official longlist, and a book that grabbed my attention from the moment I first started reading about it, when was it, around March time? This takes me back to 2013, when the two books from the Booker longlist I felt most determined to read also happened to be the two longest: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Richard House’s (utterly superb and still under-appreciated) The Kills. I emerged enriched by the experience, though, and I’m hoping and expecting I will do so again this year.

3) The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. As a reader, you can never predict with absolute certainly what books you’re going to love the most, and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is the proof of that for me. As I become more and more enmeshed in my own weird little corner of literature, the more difficult I find it (much to my regret) to become ensnared by what might be described as a ‘straightforward’ linear narrative. Which makes it all the more magical when it does happen, and I can honestly say that I haven’t loved a book as much as I loved The Wolf Border in the way I loved The Wolf Border in quite some time. I identified strongly with the protagonist, I cared passionately about the outcome, I found the sense of place exquisite and hugely important, with Hall’s writing flawless to the point of invisibility. Hall missed out on a Baileys listing and her non-appearance on the Booker longlist is incomprehensible to me. Please read this book.

4) Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. I have a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons, which I don’t want to pre-empt too much by saying: go out and buy this stunning debut novel right now!

5) Rawblood by Catriona Ward. So excited for this, as the grammatically mangled but colloquially compelling saying goes. It’s set on Dartmoor, it has intertwined narratives, it has a haunted house vibe. The opening pages are wonderful and I can’t wait to read it.

6) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Another book that caught my attention earlier in the year. Another one from the official longlist, too, so maybe that official longlist wasn’t so bad after all…

7) Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett. I bought this on the strength of John Self’s review and the Kindle preview. I adored what I read and this may very well be next up on my TBR.

8) The Making of Zombie Wars by Alexandar Hemon. I love and admire everything Hemon writes, and his new novel features ideas for imaginary zombie movies. How could I not want this right now? Pre-ordered.

9) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m choosing Atwood for my ‘big hitter/previous shortlistee’ spot, because she’s a personal hero of mine, because this novel is full-blown SF (seriously, when are people going to stop saying that Atwood is a dabbler? Most of her output for over a decade has been science fiction) and because the word on the street is that it’s her best novel in years. Seriously excited for this.

10) The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips. An intertwining of narratives featuring Emily Bronte, the character of Heathcliff and a woman in the twentieth century struggling with issues of sanity, family and identity. I read reviews of this and loved the premise immediately. The prose is mouthwateringly good. TBR asap.

11) Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. A woman on death row in Harare writes an account of what brought her there. Petina Gappah is one hell of a writer, as evidenced by her first book, the story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This is her first novel and I can’t wait.

12) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. This novel fills my ‘devil’s advocate’ slot (or the Wil[Sel]f Slot as we call it in this house – perhaps we should start calling it the Tom slot instead…) Cohen’s novel has divided opinion pretty much equally between those who say it’s the funniest, cleverest book of the year and those who say that everyone in it is a dick and that the author must be a dick to have written it, and a pretentious dick, too. Certainly everyone in the book seems to be an absolute arsehole, but since when has that put me off reading anything? I love metafiction, and I can’t help feeling intrigued and attracted by what Cohen is doing here. In spite of myself, I want to read it. Only time will tell if I come to regret that desire.

13) The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan. Coming in on the indie ticket we have a novel from Galley Beggar, who brought us Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013. Galley Beggar have published some remarkable books already, and I have heard such wonderful things about Trevelyan’s debut. It comes with a fantastic speculative conceit, too.

So that’s the fantasy longlist out of my system. And my on-the-spot predictions for the actual Booker shortlist? Based purely on personal hunches, I’m going with:

A Little Life


The Year of the Runaways

The Fishermen

The Illuminations

The Green Road

We’ll find out what the judges thought on September 15th.

The Weight of History

I’ve been thinking for much of this week about a recent essay in Strange Horizons, ‘Weight of History’ by Renay, in which she grapples with the question of what it is that makes a science fiction fan and, more precisely, what is it that a fan should have to know about science fiction. Is there such a thing as ‘the science fiction canon’ and if there is, who gets to say what’s in it? How much of it, if any, do you need to be familiar with before you can legitimately call yourself a fan of SF?SpecFic.2014

I’ve been enjoying Renay’s posts ever since she became a regular columnist at Strange Horizons and together with Shaun Duke she’s just finished putting together a particularly imaginative table of contents for Speculative Fiction 2014, an overview of online SFF criticism. I love the way Renay writes, the passion and open-mindedness of her approach. She is articulate, thoughtful and inclusive, and this essay in particular moved me because although I have a keen interest in science fiction history I often find myself dismayed by the attitudes on display in some of the more, shall we say entrenched segments of fandom, attitudes which seem to be more about a preening display of knowledge (in the manner of a peacock displaying its tail feathers) than the enthusiastic sharing and communication of love for science fiction literature. “How you’re introduced to something matters a lot,” writes Renay, “and if your introduction is a list of decades’ worth of writing and history that you’re subtly shamed for not knowing, that’s going to leave a mark.” Of course it is. A large part of the reason I’m writing this now is because of the frustration and anger I feel, that anyone should be made to feel they don’t know enough of the (frequently excruciating) backlist to be able to make a valid or useful contribution to the conversation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Renay’s essay is the feeling she describes as the ‘cultural pressure to read stories by men’:

It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there’s a history you don’t know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing.

So what exactly is going on here? Are the issues of historicity and sexism distinct, or are they inextricably a part of the same problem? I think it’s worthwhile to note here that SF is by no means alone in having this kind of baggage. In the exalted realm of mainstream literary fiction, ‘the canon’ is if anything even more restrictive, the power bases and cabals even more entrenched and aggressively protective of territory. From this we might infer that the canon as it currently operates within the field of science fiction is an almost entirely artificial construct, its main purpose to act as a kind of barrier to more progressive or divergent opinion: you don’t like our canon, we don’t want you in our discussion, end of.

heinlein moon is a harsh mistressAt the same time, nothing exists in a vacuum and history happened. We need to study history, to an extent, to come to a proper understanding of the present. Is it not particularly important that we make ourselves aware of the least savoury aspects of that history in order for it not to be perpetuated?

All interesting questions, and questions that got me thinking about my own experience as a science fiction reader. How did I first come to the genre, and what did I find there? What do I think of the canon, then and now?

I was an obsessive reader from a young age but I honestly cannot say what first brought me to science fiction. My mum reads a lot, and quite widely, but to this day she has no interest in science fiction in any medium (she likes my stuff, by and large, but is still less than comfortable with any of its more overt horror or fantasy elements). My dad prefers spy stories and thrillers. So aside from a couple of Penguin edition John Wyndham novels (which needless to say I devoured avidly as soon as I was old enough to read them) there was no science fiction or fantasy on the shelves in our house.

Perhaps these things are hardwired into our DNA somehow, because I imprinted on Doctor Who from the first episode I saw (at the age of six) and by the time I was old enough to go to the library by myself I was heading straight for the science fiction section, a habit that continued pretty much until I went to university.

The SF section in our local library consisted almost entirely of the now-gollancz best sffamous Gollancz ‘yellowjackets’ – very useful for anyone new to the genre because the books were so instantly recognisable. I used to browse the section happily for hours, eagerly looking for titles I’d not seen yet and knowing in advance that I’d be taking away stories crammed with all the stuff I was most into: weirdness, aliens, space travel, time travel, defiant rebels and renegade scientists, governments gone bad, deadly plagues, ideas and images and landscapes that were new to me and yet already so much ‘my thing’.

I read a lot of Golden Age science fiction, back in the day. I know I read quite a bit of Heinlein, shedloads of Asimov, Frederick Pohl was a particular favourite. I read Dune, I adored the ironical tone of Bob Shaw and Ian Watson – I read everything by Ian Watson I could get my hands on, although at the time I didn’t know he was British, I just presumed he and Shaw were American, like all the others. I loved anything dystopian or post-apoc – there was no bespoke YA back then, so after I’d read Brave New World and 1984 a couple of times I dug around and found bizarre and now totally forgotten books like Arthur Herzog’s Heat and IQ83 (‘Beans, beans, good for your heart…’) and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. I had an inexplicable fondness for a novel by Edmund Cooper called The Tenth Planet, which I read at least five times. There was nothing systematic about my reading. I had no idea really that there was a semi-cohesive genre called science fiction that people were fans of or had conversations about, much less argued and started decades-long feuds over. What did I know? I just loved reading it.

You may have noticed that none of the above titles are by women. Did I avoid SF by women? Did I not like SF by women? Nope. There just wasn’t any on the shelves for me to read. At some point during my early teens I came across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and discovered a sense of wonder and identification that felt quite different from anything I’d found in any of the other, male-dominated science fiction I’d been reading. But I did not identify Le Guin with the Gollancz yellowjackets, and I had no idea she’d written other novels. The experience of reading Earthsea felt very private, a one-off. I did not explore further because I did not know how. (It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much harder it was before the internet, especially for young people, to zone in on the information they needed. Mostly you’d rely on teachers, or what was on the library shelves – if it wasn’t there it didn’t exist.)

I did not notice the lack of science fiction novels by women. Questions like this were never discussed, least of all in school. It didn’t bother me. I was too busy reading. I was certainly aware that many of the female characters in the science fiction I was reading did not appeal to me but I didn’t let that bother me overmuch either – I found sympathetic favourites among the male protagonists instead.

This is exactly how cycles of patriarchal reinforcement work, of course. But I didn’t know that then.

penguin sf omnibusI suppose the first time I started to become aware of science fiction as ‘different’ from other literature, a literature that not everyone automatically liked or understood came when my ‘O’ Level English class was assigned The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus as one of our set texts (we had an amazing teacher, Jean Stupple, who was studying for her MA at the time and was passionate about literature in all its aspects – I owe my whole approach to twentieth century poetry to her), I was rubbing my hands in glee – I couldn’t wait to get stuck into that great big book of science fiction stories – and felt completely bemused when, as it turned out, pretty much half the class didn’t like what they read. Some people felt the stories weren’t ‘serious’ or that they were ‘weird’. Others clearly felt confused about how they should begin to write about them. Quite a few of my classmates opted out of the book and chose another text instead.

I retain a huge fondness for the Penguin Omnibus because it was such a big deal to me at the time. There are stories in it I still remember as being rather good (‘Lot’ by Ward Moore, ‘The End of Summer’ by Algis Budrys, ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ by Frederik Pohl, ‘The Country of the Kind’ by Damon Knight) and other curiosities that I’ll always remember because I read them here first (‘Grandpa’ by James H. Schmitz, ‘The Greater Thing’ by Tom Godwin, ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak). But here’s the thing: looking again at that table of contents this week, I find it utterly heartbreaking to see and to realise, thirty years after I first encountered the book, that out of the thirty-six stories presented, only one (‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine MacLean) is by a woman.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was assembled from the three Penguin science fiction anthologies edited by Brian Aldiss in the early 1960s and containing stories written over a roughly twenty-year period between 1941 and 1962. It was compiled under the guiding principle of presenting an overview of where science fiction was at, what had been achieved, who was writing the most interesting and original and intelligent work. A book to demonstrate to the uninitiated reader, maybe, why they should consider reading science fiction. Clearly for Aldiss at that time, the most intelligent, original and interesting science fiction was being written almost exclusively by men. Clearly it did not matter to him in the least that his ‘comprehensive’ omnibus excluded women writers. I’d be tempted to say it almost looks like a point of principle, the imbalance is so stark, only I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it is more likely that the imbalance happened because Aldiss simply did not notice it, or consider it to be important.

This too is heartbreaking to me. Seeing women’s writing, women’s contribution to science fiction erased in this way – that it is erased unintentionally almost makes it worse – makes me feel furious, and tired, and sad all at once. What we have in the Penguin Omnibus, I see now, is ‘the canon’ writ large, the closed circle being perpetuated, ever onward. Given the writers from that time period Aldiss could have included – C.L. Moore, L. Taylor Hansen, Carol Emshwiller, Kit Reed, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett, Kate Wilhelm, Andre Norton, Naomi Mitchison to name but a handful – had he been bothered or so inclined to seek them out, makes this all the more galling. The inclusion of writers like these would have shifted the tone and emphasis of the anthology substantially towards a more fully formed, multi-faceted vision of the genre, perhaps attracting more readers, more women readers even towards SF. Maybe some of these women, seeing themselves reflected in the table of contents, might even – shock, horror! – have thought about writing some science fiction themselves…

The tired, establishment rejoinder to such observations is that we shouldn’t let issues of gender affect our choice of the best stories. The obvious flaw in that argument is how do we know we’re getting anything like the best stories, if the criteria for selection are pre-set and those who are doing the selecting either refuse or can’t be arsed to look beyond them? I think one of the biggest problems for people unfamiliar with or uneasy about the rhetoric surrounding questions of industry or cultural bias occurs at a level of basic misunderstanding. ‘Where are the active impediments to women writing, submitting, publishing?’ they ask. ‘Where are the editors and commentators and critics deviously working to keep women out of science fiction?’ In the majority of cases, of course, such active impediments and devious editors do not exist, or at least have not existed for some time. No one is arguing that they do. That does not mean that there is not a problem. The problem is systemic, a system of passive reinforcement of the status quo that is so long and deeply established that for large numbers of people – both men and women – living inside it, it is invisible. You only have to look at this sample list of ‘The Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books’ to see how effectively the same-old same-old continues to be given the nod at a grassroots level. Unlike the Penguin Omnibus from the 1960s, this selection was compiled just five years ago. Of the hundred books listed, only twelve women writers. Surely even those who insist there isn’t a problem can see that’s pathetic? That is far from the only list with a similar imbalance, either – just Google and see. Some of them are even worse.

So, getting back to Renay’s original conundrum: is there a continuing cultural pressure to read stories by men, and if there is, what should we do about it?

I think we’ve established that the answer to the first part of the question is yes there is, if only because the vast majority of so-called canonical science fiction that is presented for us to read – in anthologies, in SF Masterworks series, in best-of lists – is by men.  As readers we naturally gravitate towards what is readily available, the names made familiar by repetition, the books people keep insisting that we need to read. In an area where we might feel a bit at sea and especially in need of guidance – Golden Age science fiction, for example – that effect will be doubled. Which is exactly how the system perpetuates itself.

As for what to do, there are various approaches. One of the comments on Renay’s post, from Tansy Rayner Roberts, provides both a superb analysis of the problem and a brilliant solution:

The thing is, the terrible/wonderful truth, is that you can’t catch up. No one can. What you also can’t do is compete on “contextualised reading” because you can’t replicate the experiences that many older SF fans have in common. You can never go back and read Heinlein in the 1970’s or Asimov as a twelve year old (boy) if they didn’t do it already. Just like my elder daughter read Harry Potter differently to me, and my younger daughter will read it differently agains.

But this LITERAL IMPOSSIBILITY to have the same experience with someone else’s canon is quite freeing because you get to make your own history. Your own essential canon. And if you really want “proper context” well, that’s what history books are for.

I can highly recommend finding your own classics. For every “but have you read Heinlein” or “Asimov had a great female character,” you can holler back with “But have you read all of Joanna Russ? I would tackle Heinlein but I’m starting with Delaney. I TRUMP YOU OCTAVIA BUTLER.”

I absolutely love this idea of finding your own classics, of making your own canon, if you will. I have become so dissatisfied with the popular, male-biased consensus view of science fiction history that I’m more than ever inclined to spend extra time researching those lesser known but equally important works that tell a different story of what science fiction is about and where it came from. Or that alter our perspective on the story as it stands. Or that simply give us some other names to think about, for God’s sake. (I’m not massive on Golden Age SF in any case but I’m particularly interested in what started happening with women and science fiction in the 1970s – see Jeanne Gomoll.)

As we each find our own classics, so we all make our own science fiction. How great is that? If someone – a new reader or writer – were to ask me whether they needed to read the canon to be taken seriously I’d say absolutely not (and go tell the person who told you otherwise to STFU). The truth is that all the tropes of Golden Age SF will be familiar to you already – from games, from movies, from the cultural air that you breathe without even thinking about it. In a very real sense, you won’t be missing anything, and so if you can’t stomach the thought of wading through Heinlein or Herbert then don’t. You’d be far better off expending your time in reading science fiction that does inspire your interest, that speaks to you now and is relevant to the genre as it is evolving. Anyone who tells you you need to have read Arthur C. Clarke before you can form an opinion on Jennifer Marie Brissett is just plain wrong. (Those people won’t be reading Brissett anyway, they’ll be too busy getting stuck into David Brin or Greg Bear, ha ha.) In a very real sense, life is too short.elysium.jmb

On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in investigating how we got here from there, then there should be nothing to stop you sampling some of the Golden Age canon, even if simply out of morbid curiosity. Personally I find aspects of the canon fascinating. Very little of it is great literature – I frequently find myself dipping into something I might have read thirty years ago, only to give up in despair after a chapter or two, wondering what on Earth I used to see in this stuff first time round. I think I’d be right in saying that the only works that have made it into my personal canon from those early Gollancz yellowjacket days are the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic and Keith Roberts’s Pavane, both of which I’ve read at least three times since and so can confirm they hold up magnificently. But I love the SF conversation, the SF argument. I like knowing what’s in the canon so I can mess with it a bit. If anyone asked me where would be a good place to start with old school science fiction, I’d say they could do worse than to take a look at The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus. It’s a fascinating overview, both because and in spite of the fact that it’s so flawed. Also, short stories are going to take much less of your time than novels. You can learn a lot by reading anthologies, from any period. Much more fun than slogging your way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (In fact in this case I’d say just…don’t.)

triffids.wyndhamAs for my own science fiction, what does that look like? I think I can safely say that my time with Heinlein and Asimov is over now, although I will probably have a go at rereading Clarke at some point. In spite of their faults, I am always going to love and cherish the works of John Wyndham because they’re a part of who I am as a reader and as a writer (Wyndham made a real effort with his female characters too, which I like to think isn’t a coincidence). I tend to think of the eighties and nineties as a bit of a dead time for me in SF, although I continue to be very interested in especially the British science fiction of the 1970s (not Moorcock, who is overrated in my opinion, but people like Compton, Coney, Cowper, Holdstock, Bailey, Saxton). Ballard, especially the early novels and his genius-level oeuvre of short fiction, is a cornerstone of my belief. I want to read a lot more of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Thomas Disch. I’ve not yet read Octavia Butler and I need to remedy that. I would like to read all of Delany because I think he’s one of the most brilliant and original writers science fiction has ever produced.  I continue to feel frustrated by a lot of contemporary genre SF, excited by the ideas that thrum through them yet disappointed by the rushed or stodgy or merely adequate quality of the writing itself. I hang around on the margins of genre, ceaselessly searching for those precious works which excite and innovate at a science fictional level and make you want to pump the air at their literary quality. That’s my science fiction and I love it.

What I also love more than I can say is the way the genre is beginning to diversify. The proliferation of fin-de-siecle essays about the exhaustion of science fiction were, to my mind, a reflection of the state of a genre that had been drawing from the same well for way too long – that is, the canon, the same old, the pulps, the Gernsbackian tradition. What science fiction desperately needed was a transfusion of new blood, not just younger writers but different writers, writers drawing on influences, traditions and experiences that were not necessarily centred upon Heinlein and Silverberg and the American SF writing of the 1950s. Happily, that transfusion is now beginning to take place.

If I’m drawing my influence from anywhere now I would like it to be from thehossain.efb sincerity and conviction of some of these new writers, writers whose ability to imagine and communicate often leaves what we are doing in western science fiction looking stale and flabby and tired. I want to read books that feel as if they mattered to the writer, urgently. I am finding this quality, more and more often, in novels by writers who come from way outside the canon but who will, and thank God for that, inject new life into it. I think Nnedi Okorafor is writing some of the most interesting stuff around now and her linguistic and stylistic palette is just stunning. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory and everything she writes is not only resplendent in its linguistic prowess but above all it feels meant. There’s a novel just recently come out by Saad Hossain called Escape from Baghdad! and it’s so bitingly funny, so original and so necessary I’d urge anyone and everyone to read it, science fiction fan or no. Especially in the field of short fiction, we are seeing a huge upsurge of work appearing from writers whose backgrounds and influences lie outside of the western mainstream, writers like Usman Malik who was recently nominated for a Nebula, writers like Kai Ashante Wilson and Alyssa Wong who have just been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, writers like Vandana Singh whose work would seem to be one of the perfect fusions of science and fiction out there at the moment, writers like Zen Cho, whose story collection Spirits Abroad is so original and so accomplished I was disappointed not to see it appearing on some of the mainstream literary prize shortlists. Of the short fiction I read last year, ‘Autodidact’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew lingers in my memory for its intensity of feeling and outstanding technical accomplishment. JY Yang’s ‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ has also stayed with me as the work of a powerful new voice with no fear of innovation. One of my favourite stories of this year so far, ‘Documentary’ by Vajra Chandrasekera, comes from a writer whose blog essays on science fiction and some of the issues surrounding it are also of a most superior quality – more, Vajra, please!

zen cho spiritsI hope we’ll be seeing novels from all these writers in due course – indeed Zen Cho already has one forthcoming. These writers and others like them are not just challenging the canon as it stands, they are beginning to reform it. They are making science fiction an exciting, innovative place to be again. As discussions of the Golden Age canon make little sense now without reference to the New Wave that challenged the old order and polarised opinion within it, so our discussions of ‘whither SF’ and the wearing out of genre materials make no sense at all if we don’t talk about what is happening in science fiction right now to reverse those predictions. A static canon is a dead canon. Fossils that are allowed to stay on the shelf simply because they’ve always been there are just that: fossils. We don’t have to throw them all out, necessarily, but surely we should re-examine them in the light of our thoughts, preferences and ambitions as they stand today, rather than leaving our evaluations under the sole control of memory, which is so often fickle, or tradition, which is so often stagnatory?

Science fiction is still the most radical literature alive. Radical means sticking two fingers up at the canon at least once a day. Don’t let anyone tell you what your experience of science fiction should be. This is something you should be deciding for yourself.

The Harvestman by Alison Moore

moore.harvestmanI recently read ‘The Harvestman’, the latest in Nightjar Press‘s ongoing series of standalone short stories, published as chapbooks. I’ve been an admirer of Alison Moore’s stories for years – she’s one of a breed of writers I have to list as my favourite, those whose fiction lurks disconsolately on the threshold of horror fiction, even sidling through the back door every once in a while but always fighting shy of becoming a fully paid-up member of the horror club. I thought Moore’s Booker-shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, was pretty sensational, a masterclass in the short novel form so beloved of Ian McEwan (and way better than On Chesil Beach, in fact). More than that, it grows in the imagination, the kind of novel (less common than you might think) that will deliver an equal and in all likelihood greater measure of enjoyment on a second reading.

I have Moore’s second novel, He Wants, here on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading that, but I thought I’d sample ‘The Harvestman’ in the meantime, to whet my appetite. The story is only a few pages long, but it’s a beauty. During the short time it takes to read it, it is impossible not to become aware of how well made it is. The motifs – long-legged creatures that lurk in the shadows, broken legs, hammers, accidents, repeating patterns of injury, fires, unlucky escapes – are sewn artfully into the narrative like diamonds on velvet, each perfectly placed to maximise its refractive qualities. There is enough detail and insight, in these few thousand words,  to make us feel we know the three main characters – Eliot, Abbey and Big Pete – well enough to recognise them on the street. And yet there is not a single extraneous detail in this story. Authorial control lies uppermost. You could even call ‘The Harvestman’ radically concise.

It occurred to me while I was reading ‘The Harvestman’ that when I say (as I frequently do) that I’m not actually very good at writing ‘real’ short stories, it’s stories like Moore’s that I’m thinking of: stories that fit naturally and comfortably into a few thousand words, stories whose imagery and action are tied together so perfectly that it feels as if one simply could not exist without the other, stories in which nothing happens that does not need to happen and where there are no untethered threads.

You frequently find people describing stories like this as being like jewels: worth more than its size might suggest and perfect from every angle. One of the most notable features of a story like ‘The Harvestman’ is that it has the marvellous natural alignment of a piece of found art, so right within its own skin you can’t imagine it any other way. Which of course belies the horrendous difficulty of writing a thing like that, the endless weighing and polishing to get those facets – the cut – just right.

One of the most important factors in developing your voice as a writer is discovering, by experimenting, by trial and error, in other words, what kind of writer you are. For me, the past couple of years have been about coming to understand that I am a naturally discursive writer, that I am obsessed with creating stories that ‘bag out’, that run off at tangents, and that my main task as this kind of writer is not to eliminate that tendency by streamlining my writing but to bring a sense of cohesion and logical progression to the various loose ends. To attach them to each other to make something that, while it is an intricate collation of minutiae, is also subject to an overarching order.

Rather like a spider’s web, I guess.

In her use of language and in particular the subject matter she chooses, I feel a great affinity with Alison Moore. I feel I understand instinctively why these stories were made, and even some of the how. I’m drawn to a character like Eliot immediately – I totally get that he’s afraid of harvestmen, which is why he notices every detail about them, and even, ironically, looks a little bit like one.

What I could never, ever do though is write his story in the way that Alison Moore has. She, unlike me, can write short stories. She is a master of the form.

Why not treat yourself and buy a copy of ‘The Harvestman’ here? And hurry – this is a limited edition of 200 copies, so they won’t hang about.

The tyranny of plot

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.

For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.


I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.

The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.

Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.

But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.

I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.

I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?

Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.

Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.

In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).

I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.

For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.

I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.