Category Archives: writers

Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two for the road – best of British

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

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

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

De Abaitua has certainly got his own back on Davina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes – it’s time. With Christmas and New Year come the first intimations of the rapidly approaching 2016 awards season. First out of the starting gates are the BSFA Awards. Under the new and somewhat arcane awards rules, those eligible to nominate must now do so twice: once for the selection of the longlists (which as I understand it will consist of ALL eligible nominations received in this first round) and then again for the selection of the shortlists. BSFA members and members of the 2015 Eastercon must get their first round of nominations in by December 31st in order for them to count in the second round. So get nominating. The rules and online nominations form can be found here. Alternatively, you can email your full list of nominations to the awards administrator at awards@bsfa.co.uk

Remember, nominations are restricted to four works per category, which can call for some difficult choices. I’ve not completely made up my mind yet which will make my final cut, but as has become traditional at this time of year, I’d like to mention some of those works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which have particularly caught my attention.

In the novel category, three works stand out: Alexis Wright’s The Swan swanbook.wrightBook, Sarah Taylor’s The Shore and Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me. All three could be called post-apocalypse novels, but I’m coming more and more to dislike such easy categorisations and in any case, the three books are all very different. What these three novels do have in common, sadly, is critical neglect. While The Shore did make the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the shortlist of the Guardian First Book Award, it seems barely to have been discussed in SFF circles. Similarly with The Swan Book, which was shortlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin Awards in Wright’s native Australia, but – this excellent review by Octavia Cade at Strange Horizons aside – has been more or less bypassed by critics with an interest in SFF. Laura Van Den Berg has rightly received a great deal of praise for Find Me in the US mainstream book press. Why the British release seems to have been absent from just about everyone’s radar is anyone’s guess, but whatever the reason, it’s a serious oversight. These three books offer so much to the reader, not simply in terms of what they wish to tell us about the dangers of climate change, the breakdown of society under unchecked capitalism and the iniquities it perpetrates, but in terms of how their stories are told. The fractured narratives of The Shore, the extraordinary language of The Swan Book, the blurring of realities in Find Me – anyone in doubt over the literary value of speculative fiction would be hard pressed to find three more complex, absorbing, beautiful and passionately executed novels from the whole of what gets called the mainstream, all year.

rawblood.wardOn the horror side, of course I’m going to name Catriona Ward’s Rawblood as my Book of the Year. I also need to mention J. M. McDermott’s Straggletaggle. I think this was actually a 2014 release, but blink and you’d have missed it, and so far as I can recall I don’t think either the eBook or the physical editions were actually available in the UK until 2015 in any case. Straggletaggle is a wild, weird and genuinely terrifying deconstruction of the steampunk idiom. Quite brilliant, and quite unlike anything else you’ll have read this year. Once again, the lack of critical commentary is really quite staggering. It genuinely upsets me, the paucity of attention McDermott is given. As one of the most original voices currently working in SFF his name should be everywhere.  His works are spare, acerbic and mystifying, sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I’m intending to make a deeper study of his work at some point (time, time) but in the meantime, I would thoroughly recommend Straggletaggle as a starting point. Please read it.

Honourable mentions must go to Oliver Langmead’s bold and really rather trouble.linkwonderful Dark Star, a science fiction novel written entirely in iambic pentameters. We have seen speculative fiction embrace epic poetry before now – most notably in Anne Carson’s sublime Red Doc> and Sam Barlow’s gripping LA werewolf noir Sharp Teeth (read them now if you haven’t already!) – but Langmead takes to the form admirably and there is a real strength of line in his composition. Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border offers only the tiniest excuse to be called SF, but fans of The Carhullan Army will find plenty of reminder of that novel in Hall’s treatment of landscape and illumination of the inner lives of characters. I loved this book, which would vie with Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage as my Book of the Year Across All Genres. China Mieville’s collection Three Moments of an Explosion seems to signal a new direction for Mieville. There are occasional flashes of ur-Mieville excess, of course (tentacles!) but on the whole the explosions these collected pieces generate are more tautly controlled. more contemplative, if that’s the right word for a collection that still does contain excavated alien antecedents, lake demons, arcane playing cards that force you into playing forfeits with Elder Gods or whoever. I loved the mix-up of fictions and metafictions. Mieville has a new novella out in February which I’m looking forward to but from a critical standpoint I’m especially interested to see where his next full-length novel might take him. Still on the subject of collections, it’s not every year we have a new book by Kelly Link to delight us, so the publication of Link’s fourth collection, Get in Trouble, was a particular treat. I’d read a couple of the stories before in various online venues, but several were completely new to me and all, as with everything by Link, will deepen and strengthen in the rereading.

anne.charnock.embersLate Arrivals at the BSFA Ball? Two I’m reading at the moment, both British, both second novels, both immensely promising and both might well make it to my final BSFA nominations slate. The first is Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which presents us with three interlinked stories across three different time periods: past, present and future. Art, history and future society form the primary subject matter and I’m loving this novel every bit as much as I enjoyed Charnock’s debut, A Calculated Life, which I read earlier this year. Secondly we have Matthew de Abaitua’s long-awaited return with If Then, which if it stays as good all the way to the end as it is in its first third, will be one of my top tips to take next year’s Clarke Award.

New stuff to watch for 2016? It’s way early yet, but just to mention a couple graft.2016of books I’ve had the pleasure and the luck to read in manuscript form and that will be coming out next year. First up, Matt Hill’s second novel Graft will be out from Angry Robot in February. Anyone who’s read Hill’s debut The Folded Man – and if not, why not? – will instantly know where they are as Hill’s mean and broken future Manchester is pretty inimitable. You’ll meet some amazing characters navigating some profoundly dangerous situations in an environment of true weirdness that has a touch of the William Gibsons about it whilst at the same time presenting a science fiction that’s very personal, very British. In a word, it’s fantastic. Zachary Jernigan’s new short story collection – so new its title hasn’t been announced yet – should be out in the spring from Ragnarok Publications. Some of the stories take place in the world of Jeroun – see Jernigan’s tough-minded and exquisitely wrought novels No Return and Shower of Stones – some have a more recognisably realworld setting. All are pretty extraordinary. I found the collection stunning, to be honest – I gave it a 10/10 on my private score-ometer (whatever that is) – and I hope it wins many awards. I could say the same of Aliya Whiteley’s upcoming novella from Unsung Stories, The Arrival of Missives. This is so beautifully executed it made me cry. All those who read and loved The Beauty, brace yourselves, because Missives is just as good, if not better. All those evil people who haven’t read The Beauty yet, why not atone for this grave mistake by pre-ordering The Arrival of Missives right away??

radiance.valenteTwo spring releases that I’ve not read yet but am particularly excited about are Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, a novel based around the world and the characters we first met in her story ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ which I loved, and which most recently appeared in the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women. It’s a feast of metafiction, found documents and embedded texts, by all accounts, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.  My second pre-order for 2016 is Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’s debut, the short fiction collection Battleborn, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and I’m hoping this new work – a near-future science fiction set amongst the same landscapes as Battleborn – will be something equally special.

Back soon for Part Two – in which I’ll talk about the short fiction and non-fiction which most stood out for me in 2015.

 

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.

POINTS WORTH REMEMBERING THIS WEEK:

  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
burning
(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.)