Category Archives: writers

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.

Dreams Before the Start of Time

In all the political excitement and confusion of the past ten hours, no one should forget that today also sees the publication of Anne Charnock’s beautifully crafted third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time. A sequel-of-sorts to her second, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Dreams has us revisit one of the main characters from that novel, and brings us a whole host of new characters to populate, clarify and meditate upon the technological, sociological and environmental changes that have taken place in her world since last we saw her.

Toni was a teenage girl in Sleeping Embers. Now an old lady, her store of memories and knowledge of possibilities beyond the parameters of the existence we know makes her – and the reality she inhabits – both utterly compelling as a character and a notable and important exemplar of everything science fiction can be capable of when it is as good as this.

I greatly admire this book. I love the music it makes when listened to in consort with its equally accomplished predecessor. Most of all, I’m delighted and inspired by Anne Charnock’s writing talent, her contemplative, forensic, insatiably curious approach to speculative fiction. The three novels she has produced to date constitute a significant literary achievement in their own right, as well as being the springboard from which – I feel sure of it – Charnock will leap towards still more confident advances in the novels to come.

What with all the Sharke-ing, I’ve not yet had time to write the review this novel deserves, but in a way that’s a good thing as your reading energies would be far better spent in getting stuck into the book itself. But for any of you who do enjoy a more detailed introduction, look no further than From Couch to Moon, where you’ll see that my fellow Sharke, Megan AM, clearly enjoyed Dreams Before the Start of Time as much as I did.

One for next year’s shortlist, that’s for sure…

 

2084

Trying to come up with something good to say about today, I note with some excitement the launch of Unsung Stories’s new Kickstarter project, set up with the aim of helping the launch of their first ever anthology. 2084 is a celebration – if that’s the right word – of George Orwell’s great novel 1984, in which we see eleven science fiction writers grappling with his themes and coming up with new interpretations and meditations on what Orwell was writing about back in 1948.

As George Sandison suggests in his introduction to the Kickstarter, far from being last-century, the themes of 1984 have never felt more urgent, more relevant, and the act of writing science fiction has itself never felt more political. With new stories by Aliya Whiteley, Anne Charnock, Christopher Priest and Dave Hutchinson to name just four, 2084 looks like being a landmark anthology and I’d urge everyone to support it. (The artwork is amazing, too.)

And while we’re on the subject of Kickstarters, I backed Influx Press’s latest earlier in the week. I’m choosing Eley Williams’s collection Attrib as my reward – from the samples I’ve read it seems an extraordinary book – but more than that I want to support what they do, because in the current climate especially, publishers that support writing that is as political as it is personal are more important than ever.

On an allied subject, I was reading Iain Sinclair’s essay ‘The Last London‘ in the London Review of Books yesterday. Discursive and clearly targeted at the same time, Sinclair’s ruminations about what is happening not just to London but to our corner of the world struck more than a few chords.

There are so many good people, fighting for good things. It’s good, especially today, to try and remember that.

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

I have a complicated relationship with immersive fiction. As a reader, it’s the ultimate pleasure: to be so thoroughly absorbed in a world, a landscape, a cast of characters that the world you happen to be living in recedes for a while, that there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than reading that book, that returning to it after each forced separation is like hurrying down cellar steps into a lighted, secret domain of intrigue and wonder.

The greater part of what you stand to lose in becoming a writer is the natural, instinctive access to that domain that you enjoy as a reader. You can go there all right, but you run the risk of not giving a shit. Of shrugging your shoulders and sneering ‘yeah, and?’ Of so consistently, so predictably demanding the text teach you something that you forget the joy of story altogether.

I remember when I left home to go to university, being worried about not having access to a piano. I was never what you’d call a real pianist, but my daily contact with the instrument, with my dog-eared collection of beloved sheet music, with the practice of playing, was of such importance to me that I could not imagine a life in which that contact did not form a key component and the very idea of losing it terrified me.

As it happened, there was no problem getting access to pianos at university and I was able to book practice sessions – at the music department in Upper Redlands Road, Reading, then at lovely Knightley, Exeter University’s music department (now closed – another crime against higher learning in Britain) – whenever I wanted. It was only later, when I moved out of higher education and into accommodation where housing a piano would have been difficult to impossible, that the instrument and I began to lose our connection. In sailing so far out into another life, I watched the lights of the old one recede and then disappear. I don’t play now, because I haven’t played in so long I would be appalled to discover the full extent of what I have lost. And so it goes.

For a writer, losing that instinctive and unthinking connection to story is a little bit the same.

I don’t read immersive fantasy because a lot of it is ‘just’ story: there is little for me to learn from it except what happens next. If I’m honest, it has most likely been my too-ready adherence to this prejudice that has formed the core reason it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Steph Swainston’s Castle books. I’ve been aware of the series since the publication of this first instalment back in 2004, even to the extent of knowing broadly who the characters are and what happens to them, but I somehow always managed to put off the actual reading ‘until later’. I finally picked up The Year of Our War just before we moved house, firstly in an attempt to make good that gap, and secondly because after a seven-year hiatus a new Castle book was finally published in December of last year. I felt curious about Fair Rebel as a possible Clarke contender and thought I’d better read at least one of the earlier Castle novels as preparation.

The bare bones of its synopsis might cast The Year of Our War as standard fantasy:  the allied kingdoms of the Fourlands are under attack from ferociously invasive giant insects. The people’s only hope are the Eszai, a higher caste of immortals of immense and specific talent, sequestered at the Castle and ruled over by the Emperor, who is himself immortal and not always consistent in his judgements. But to think of Swainston’s novel in such basic terms would be a little like dismissing War and Peace as a family saga.

The Year of Our War was a joy to read. Not just for its story, which I found thoroughly engrossing in a way I’ve not experienced much recently, but for its clear and striking commitment to itself, its willingness to be not ‘quirky’ (a horrid word, which suggests slightness, lack of intellectual depth) but odd. There is coherent worldbuilding here – hardcore fantasy fans need not be disappointed – but the novel constantly subverts itself, shifting its emphasis as the author’s vision demands, pulling the rug from beneath the feet of cosy expectations. There is an acerbic, decidedly offbeat humour, a preoccupation with metaphysics, with contemporary politics, with the off-kilter inner workings of intelligent minds. Swainston’s use of language is deft, imaginative, colourful and so intrinsically fit for purpose you barely stop to notice how breathtakingly lovely it can be and often is.

This is a writer so thoroughly in command of her materials that she knows exactly how and when to break the rules, which is often and inventively and with evident delight.

There is something else, too, a rawness of purpose, an unvarnished quality that is seriously on the endangered list in the increasingly homogenised, sanded-down SFF published by genre imprints. The narrative darts this way and that, veering off at a tangent here, chasing off down a side street there, picking up the thread of the story only fifty pages later. These are the supposedly dodgy habits, the intrusive mannerisms, the blurring of the narrative line that many agents and editors insist are deal-breakers. Gods be thanked then they survive intact here. The Year of Our War is fiction that is meant and felt, fiction that is entirely the product of the author’s vision. Fantasy fction as original as this – as wayward as this – is rarer than you think. While reading The Year of Our War I frequently found myself wondering if any editor working for one of the larger imprints today would have allowed the manuscript to get anywhere near the copy-editing stage without having its wings clipped.

I experienced also a mounting sense of disbelief, that Steph Swainston and the Castle series are not better known. Swainston began publishing just as China Mieville was gaining ascendancy as the premier writer of the so-called ‘New Weird’. There was then and still is now plenty of discussion around whether the New Weird was really a thing, or simply a marketing tactic. Personally I tend towards the belief that it was a thing, and that as a means of talking about the burst of metafictional and conceptual innovation that irrupted into the genre, the novels and writers that defined the field in the early years of the new century, the New Weird was as good a label as any. But could it be that the attention given to Mieville, the overweening emphasis on Mieville sucked the oxygen out of the nascent movement and stopped it actually going anywhere? That less publicised writers like Swainston were sidelined simply by not being China, then found themselves further disadvantaged as Mieville himself became less visible and the excitement around the New Weird began to diminish?

None of this is Mieville’s fault, of course, and difficult to prove either way. What is plainly evident though is that Steph Swainston is one of the most creatively and intellectually ambitious writers working in genre, and – after being faced with this heartbreaking article in 2011 – we should feel thankful and delighted that she is writing again. Not that the industry seems to have learned much in the interim: Fair Rebel was published at the dog-end of the year to little fanfare.  And for the record, the whole guff about Swainston’s earlier Castle novels being rejected by awards juries as ‘not science fiction’ is plainly idiotic: if Perdido Street Station could be shortlisted for (and go on to win) the Clarke, why not The Year of Our War? And when are those same juries going to admit that novels featuring wars with giant insects are no less echt SF than novels about generation starships? If it’s a question of which is more likely to happen in a foreseeable future, I know which of the two I’d place my bet on, at any rate…

(You can read a fascinating interview with Steph Swainston about the world of Castle here.)

This Spectacular Darkness

Anyone with an interest in the work of Joel Lane will no doubt be aware that his non-fiction was every bit as accomplished as his fiction. Joel’s essays on weird fiction, both his studies of individual writers and his analytical overviews of weird themes and perspectives, are amongst the most insightful and important in the genre. They are also accessible, thrilling in their scope and power, lovingly crafted with the skill of a master. Readers steeped in the weird and new converts alike will find in their pages a lifetime’s worth of material to contemplate and be inspired by.

Joel’s long-term aim was to compile from his essays a history of the weird, taking in a century and more of strange writers and their seminal works. It is both his tragedy and ours that Joel died before he was even halfway through his project. Those essays that do exist though – these constitute a major work of reference in their own right, and how lucky we are that Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press, aided by esteemed writer and critic Mark Valentine, have compiled and produced for us This Spectacular Darkness, a landmark work that brings together Joel’s extant critical essays, together with a number of additional essays celebrating and critiquing the poems, short fiction and novels of Joel Lane himself.

Tartarus Press books are always stunning, but this one is particularly beautiful and with its wealth of previously uncollected material, an absolute must for both fans of Joel’s work and historians, critics and commentators on the weird alike. I am especially proud to note that my own essay on Joel’s three novels, ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ (previously published as an addendum to Eibonvale Press’s collection of Joel’s stories Scar City) is also reproduced here. This is a limited edition hardcover, so hurry and secure your copy, while stocks last!