Category Archives: writers

Clarke Award 2015 – what’s in a shortlist?

Having now read all six novels on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, and with just two weeks to go before the award ceremony itself, I thought I’d try and bring some order to my thoughts on the books in contention. What’s interested me most about this year’s shortlist is the almost overwhelmingly positive reception it has received. People like this shortlist – I don’t think I’ve seen a single dissenting opinion or online rant (yet – it could be that people have been too preoccupied with Puppygate), which must be a first in itself. So what is it about this list that sets it apart?

I think the word that sprang to mind first for me as an adjective to describe this list was cohesive. In a way that few of the more recent shortlists have done, the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist seems to present a unified vision, a statement of intent: here is a snapshot of science fiction in 2015, make of it what you will. It also has an air of balance about it. Gender parity, for a start, also an interesting mix of novels from both genre and mainstream literary publishers. (Niall Harrison has more to say about this in his characteristically excellent and fair-minded write-up at Strange Horizons.) There is a sense that books on this list really could reach across the genre/mainstream divide and win new readers for science fiction. Several of the titles – The Girl with all the Gifts and Station Eleven in particular – have already enjoyed considerable commercial success.

So this list is popular, balanced, cohesive, appealing and commercial. It showcases a science fiction that is inclusive and gregarious, a literature that is lively and engaged. What could possibly be wrong? Well, nothing, and I’m not going to be the Jeremiah who steps forward to proclaim this a baaaad shortlist (oh Jeremiah, where are you when I need you?) But even as the six books were unveiled, I couldn’t help feeling that the Clarke Award shortlist 2015 could just as easily be defined by the books that don’t appear on it as by those that do. 2014 was – and I think we’re all agreed on this – an exceptional year for science fiction. The judges could easily have picked four or five completely different and equally acceptable shortlists from the books on offer. I do find I have to ask myself: why this one?

For me, this is a shortlist of two halves. On the one hand we have Europe in Autumn, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and Station Eleven. I like and admire all three of these books, for various reasons, and I think any of them could make a worthy winner. On the other hand we have The Girl with all the Gifts, Memory of Water, and The Book of Strange New Things, all books I dislike, somewhat vehemently, for equally differing reasons. But once again it’s interesting to note how little distance, in terms of tone, ambition and execution, there is between them really.

girl.careyI know a lot of readers have loved M. R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts, and I can understand why. This is a zombie story with a difference – a zombie point of view, in fact – and unlike some authors of the slash ‘em and burn ‘em school, Carey has taken care not only to provide us with a story that is rooted in character but that also comes complete with a convincing scientific rationale for his zombie apocalypse. I get that, but I hated it anyway. Not only did the semi-intriguing opening act rapidly give way to your typical small-band-of-survivors-make-their-way-through-the-zombie-infested-wastes-exploring-their-cliched-and-ultimately-irrelevant-backstories-as-they-go kind of book (and why did the junkers swamp the army base with zombies in the first place? Because the plot needed them to, that’s why), but I later discovered that the part of the book I admired most – the carefully detailed scientific explanation behind the zombie plague – had actually been explored before, via a multi-million-selling computer game. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the sensitivity of the writing in The Girl with all the Gifts, but although I found it perfectly serviceable for the most part, the too-frequent intrusion of embarrassingly clunky and overworked metaphors really wasn’t a plus, to say the least. The characters, with the possible exception of Melanie herself, are blandly plot-bound. The Girl with all the Gifts is a highly readable, skilfully executed piece of commercial genre fiction – just the thing for a long train ride, and that ending is unexpected.  But given what the judges had to choose from, I honestly have no idea how or indeed why it ended up on the shortlist for an award charged with finding the best SF novel of the year.

I reviewed Memory of Water for Arc magazine, so there’s no need for me to memory.itarantago over old ground by explaining why this novel didn’t work for me. Again, other readers have loved it – for an opposite view to my own, please do seek out Katherine Farmar’s review at Strange Horizons – and Itaranta is clearly a thoughtful and painstaking writer with her heart in the right place. I am genuinely interested to see what she does next – but for me, Memory of Water still only makes sense for me as YA, the kind of book I know I would have enjoyed as a younger reader but that feels tentative, unformed and insipid to me now, and with no clear direction.

bosnt.faberThe Michel Faber. Well, I think I voiced my feelings about that one clearly enough in my review at Strange Horizons! Safe to say I wasn’t keen. The thing is and for all my personal dislike of it, I’m finding myself respecting the judges’ choice of this book more, because for all its faults and failings (of which there are many) The Book of Strange New Things is so clearly an ambitious attempt to do something (though I’m still not clear what) by a writer I’ve loved in the past and hope to see a lot more of in the future (Faber’s moratorium on novels for the time being does not, we would hope, extend to short fiction). You never know what you’re going to get with Faber, which is part of the joy of him. He keeps pushing himself, which is what all writers should do. And I’m intrigued and provoked by the fact that the judges took this (impossible white elephant of a) book to their hearts and thence to the shortlist.

Like The Girl with all the Gifts, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August presents us harry.northwith a skilfully written, commercially successful slice of pure genre. But oh, did I prefer Harry August.  This novel is narrated entirely from the eponymous Harry’s point of view, so whether or not you’re going to like it will depend at least in part on how well you get on with him. I loved Harry’s knowing style, his death-black humour, his ironical wit. I also loved the way the book extrapolates the grandfather paradox to its logical conclusion, the expertly woven plot threads and time streams, the novel’s overall cohesion. As I was reading, I kept thinking (not without some sorrow) that Harry August is exactly what Doctor Who could and should be like, if only the people in charge of that particular juggernaut had the balls to commission and produce some decent science fiction stories instead of the timey-handwavy claptrap they continue to foist upon us. Harry August is smart, well-made, and – in spite of the slew of ‘repeated lives’ novels we’ve been seeing recently – original. If i have a criticism, it is that the book drags in the third quarter. Overall it is about a hundred pages too long. Some judicious cutting of repeated information would have improved the pace of the story no end.

autumn.hutchinsonWith its wit, irony and black humour, Europe in Autumn shares many positive traits in common with Harry August, and in overall tone and general smartness of attitude, these two novels reminded me of each other quite a lot. I loved Rudi’s glum stoicism as I loved Harry’s arch ironies. I similarly enjoyed the wonderfully evoked post-Soviet ambience and the central conceit – parallel Europes this time, and with a secret map to boot. If Europe in Autumn has the edge over Harry August for me it’s because it’s just a little rougher around the edges, a little less slick, a little less calculated. I actively enjoyed the way the novel wanders, in seemingly unconnected segments, over the continent. In contrast with some readers, I had no problem with the lateness of the reveal. There was plenty to keep me happy along the way, and the central premise, when it finally becomes clear, is well worth waiting for.  This is British science fiction of a kind – cerebral, funny, eccentric and vaguely glum – we need more of. I like this book. A lot.

Of all the novels on this year’s Clarke shortlist, Station Eleven is, for me, the station eleven.mandelmost complete and satisfying as a work of literature. The story as such is pretty conventional in terms of its science fiction: superflu pandemic escapes from a medical laboratory somewhere in Europe, 99% of the world’s population dies, the survivors struggle to make a new world amongst the ruins. So far, so yawn-inducing. (In fact when I describe it like that, I almost begin to hate it myself.) Where Station Eleven finds its strength though is in the depiction of the inner lives and minor struggles of the central cast of characters in the years before the final catastrophe. The characterisation, the interweaving web of people and circumstance, is so finely, so expertly wrought that it arguably makes Station Eleven, of all the books on this shortlist, the novel that would most reward a rereading.  It’s a beautiful book, and largely deserving of the critical attention it has received. If there’s a but, in terms of its Clarke nomination at least, it has to be centred around the business of its science fiction. Even as someone who rates this novel, I am bound to admit there’s nothing particularly new here. For a more robust discussion of the pro and contra of Station Eleven, you should check out the heartfelt disagreement between Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond at The Writer and the Critic. Great listening.

So that’s the shortlist we’ve got. But what of the shortlist we could have had? For my money, the most incomprehensible omission from this and from other awards shortlists this year has been Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even leaving aside the business of whether the Southern Reach trilogy could or should have been considered as a single work (and I for one believe that VanderMeer’s awards chances have been compromised by confusion over this very point), Annihilation is, by itself, one of the most significant SFF novels of 2014 and the idea that The Girl with all the Gifts, say, could have been prioritised over it provokes, in me at least, a moment of genuine ‘whaaafuuu??’

And what of Monica Byrne? Even if I felt a little disappointed that the masterful worldbuilding and original science fictional concepts that so beautifully characterise the ambience of The Girl in the Road were not foregrounded a little more in the novel’s plot development, there isn’t a smidgen of doubt in my mind that Byrne’s debut is an exceptional work of literature. Even where there are vague conceptual similarities – both books present visions of a near future – The Girl in the Road‘s use of language, breadth and depth of vision, daringness in terms of ideas, its sense of direction and overall cohesiveness all set it on a different plane entirely when set alongside Memory of Water, say. Another ‘whaaafuuu???’ moment for me, then, not to mention the sense of a missed opportunity: just imagine, for a moment, a shortlist that swapped Carey and Itaranta for VanderMeer and Byrne.

Personally I’d go one further and swap an old hand for a new kid – Michel Faber for Hanya Yanagihara, if we want to name names (and yes, of course we do). If I had to sum up The Book of Strange New Things in a single phrase, I would describe it as a wonderful idea that went woefully awry. The People in the Trees, on the other hand, is a debut so strong it’s difficult to believe that it is a debut. The science fictional conceit – a tribe of people who have inadvertently discovered the secret of eternal life – runs like a silver thread through this novel, which foregrounds subjects key to contemporary near-future science fiction such as aggressive colonisation, environmental degradation and the exploitation of indigenous societies to meet Western needs. Yanagihara’s narrator is one of the most loathsome and compelling voices I have encountered in literature recently, brilliantly realised, and the somewhat Nabokovian introduction and footnotes by a ‘frame narrator’ were just the icing on the cake for me. In sum, the inclusion of Yanagihara would have made for an edgier, more propulsive feel to the shortlist that would have been most welcome.

In fact, if I were to define what it is, precisely, that feels absent from this year’s Clarke shortlist it would be that sense of edginess, of risk. Taken as a whole, the six books we have make up a solid group that no one, least of all the judges, should feel ashamed of. But that’s the word, isn’t it? Solid. Am I alone in feeling I’m missing the raw edges of Simon Ings’s Wolves, the wild speculation of Adam Roberts’s Bete, the uneasy post-colonial meditations of Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, the antic anger of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, the linguistic panache of Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, the manic experimentalism of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon? Aside from the minor narrative discontinuities of Europe in Autumn and the alternation between present day and flashback sequences in Station Eleven, we have nothing on the shortlist-as-is that so much as hints at formal experiment, or challenges us in terms of language, or discomfits our sense of what science fiction might be for.

It all feels a bit safe to me, in terms of both audience expectations and market demands. And the last thing science fiction needs is to be safe. It should be radical and it should be provocative. I think we’ve missed a trick here, and that is a shame.

My vote for May 6th, for what it’s worth, goes to Europe in Autumn, easily the most subversive book on the list and all the more rewarding for those tricky sharp bits.

Günter Grass 1927 – 2015

We formed a triangle. My throbbing tooth went quiet – because Mahlke’s Adam’s apple, to the cat at least, had become all mouselike. The cat was so young, and that thing of Mahlke’s was bobbing like mad  – in any case, the beast went for his throat.  Or one of us grabbed the cat and dumped it on his neck. Or I did, with or without my toothache. Lured the cat over and showed it Mahlke’s mouse. And Joachim Mahlke screamed. And yet all he had to show for it were a few puny scratches.

(From Cat and Mouse, 1961. Translation mine.)

grass.katzundmausCat and Mouse takes place in Danzig, Günter Grass’s home city, a microcosm of greater Europe that affected his whole outlook, as a human being and as a writer. Our narrator Pilenz, as might be inferred from the extract above, is as unreliable as they come. He tells us anecdotes about Joachim Mahlke – school misfit, daredevil diver and champion masturbator. Between the cracks of his story, Hitler comes to power and the boys become soldiers. The cat is awake, the mouse is on the run. Outrages are perpetrated, speeches are made. But who was it that set the cat on Mahlke’s mouse?

Cat and Mouse was one of the first novels I read by a major European author and quietly, devastatingly it transformed my vision, my ideas about what a book might be for. Grass’s language, or rather Pilenz’s, with its odd angularities and unintentional acts of poetry, was something of a struggle for me at first, its complexities hidden, as the language of teenagers often is, by a looseness of expression that can be hard to decipher. But once I fell into its rhythm I found myself entranced, horrified, aghast at what was happening, among this group of boys in Danzig and in the world beyond. This short novel, which I read for the first time more than thirty years ago, has stayed with me, taut as a scar, right through to the present, and I love it dearly. I loved The Tin Drum after it, and then another Danzig novel, the quietly moving Unkenrufe.  I bought and read Im Krebsgang when it first came out, in 2002, and although it lacked the youthful urgency and rawness of Katz und Maus (as of course it would) I found it to be a blistering, brilliant, deeply angry novel that inspired and affected me in equal measure.

You might not always agree with Günter Grass, but who the hell cares. Grass’s commitment to life, to the act of writing, to literature, to the personal search for truth and the unearthing of unwelcome but necessary realities remained absolute. He was everything a Nobel laureate should be. He increased the sum of who we are by what he wrote, even when what he wrote veered wildly off-beam. I love him for the example he set us, as writers, in always treating the words we choose to set down with the utmost seriousness. He rocked my world and I’ll never forget that.

An era is over.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

The Clarke Award submissions list is out!

There seems to have been some debate this year as to the value of posting the ACCA submissions list – do people really care, does discussion of what’s actually on the list get derailed in a bluster of conspiracy theories about which books have been omitted, and why? I would answer yes and no to these two questions, respectively, and I’m happy to see that the Clarke Award’s director, Tom Hunter, would appear to have drawn a similar conclusion about the value of revealing the submissions to public scrutiny:

“Keen award watchers could get a better overview of exactly what was and wasn’t in consideration, and people could also enjoy trying to guess ahead and predict the judges’ decisions. Trust us, it’s tougher than it looks to turn over 100 books into a list of just 6.

It’s also a brilliant way to show an overview of the UK publishing scene, who is publishing the most books, which imprints are new on the scene, what’s the gender split of titles across the list (we checked that one, it’s about 1 in 4, same as the last few years) and how many past winner and shortlistees have new books in contention.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m delighted to see that debate has started already. The full submissions list can be found here, and as always it throws up some interesting surprises. Normally I would enjoy making a list of my own shortlist predictions, but with a book on that submissions list myself this year, I think it would be… weird for me to do that. But what I’d like to do instead and to celebrate the official opening of Clarke season is highlight a few of the titles that weren’t on my radar before, but that now, thanks to the submissions list, most certainly are.

1) Babayaga by Toby Barlow (Atlantic). Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in epic verse, is a work of genius, the kind of writing that makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end at its joyous brilliance. I hadn’t known he had a new book out. and this one – a Cold War story set in Paris, with witches – looks truly fantastic.

2) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (Granta). I’m fibbing here, because this has been on my radar for months. I can’t resist mentioning it though, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t heard of it yet. I love the premise – a video adventure game bleeds over into the real world – and I love the writing. In fact the only reason I haven’t read Wolf in White Van already is because I feel I know in advance that I’m going to love it. If that makes sense.

3) The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I vaguely heard word of this ages ago, before it was published, but had completely forgotten about it. This novel – set in a world oppressed by technology where the written word is being phased out – looks as if it might have themes and concerns in common with Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which is reason enough to recommend it to me all by itself.

4) The Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley (Barbican Press). I’ve just read the preview for this and it looks really interesting. A mysterious Dr Frankenstein arrives on a remote Scottish island. His intent? To create a wife for the creature he has already unleashed. The most obvious comparison is with Valerie Martin’s wonderful Mary Reilly, but this book would seem to have a flavour and texture and language all its own. Definitely want to read this.

5) God’s Dog by Diego Marani (Dedalus). Marani is familiar to me from his previous novel, New Finnish Grammar, but again, I had no idea he had a new book out. A crime novel set in a future theocracy, with Vatican spies? Literary science fiction asking these kind of big questions is always welcome on my shelves. Great to see Dedalus sending stuff in, too.

6) After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail). Another fib, because I’ve not only heard of this, it’s actually on my Kindle, ready to read. Sarah Perry would seem to be one of the most promising and original new writers around at the moment, someone who’s interested in tackling speculative themes in a serious and thought-provoking way. I think such writers should be promoted and supported wherever possible, and I’m delighted to see her debut on the list of Clarke submissions.

7) Indigo by Clemens J. Setz (Serpent’s Tail). Another one from Serpent’s Tail, and this was the first of my ‘unknowns’ to immediately catch my attention and make me want to write this post. A metafictional European mystery set in the future with found documents and the author as one of the characters? That is so totally my kind of book. Wish I’d written it myself!

8) Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla (The Friday Project). And yeah, I knew about this one already too (indeed I’ve just bought it), but Shukla is such a wonderful writer I couldn’t not mention him. Plus it’s a postmodern novel about internet doppelgangers. How could I resist?

These are the kind of books science fiction needs to push its envelope. It’s wonderful to see them making their way on to the submissions list of one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards.

 

The Wolf Border

sarah hall the wolf borderSarah Hall has been on science fiction’s radar ever since 2008, when her third novel The Carhullan Army, a feminist re-imagining of the near-future dystopia, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Those hoping for a similarly explicit exploration of speculative themes in Hall’s new novel The Wolf Border may find themselves disappointed. Yes, the book is set in an alternate near-future, but the differences between this world and our own – or at least those differences Hall chooses to show us – appear undramatic: the Scottish referendum results in a ‘yes’ vote, pound notes still exist. Such divergences aside, the world as we know it today continues unchanged.

Hall’s process is more subtle than that, however. The stories in her recent collection The Beautiful Indifference could fairly be classified as ‘realistic’ – as mainstream literary fiction, in other words. And yet. There is a sense of something other there, too, the intercession of the numinous, the speculative, the raw nerve endings of the horrific (I would count her story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, which contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, as one of the greatest horror stories I have read in recent years).  It is to this realm of the speculative – mysterious, unstated, instinctive – that The Wolf Border belongs. As a writer, Hall seems to be growing stronger with each book she publishes. The Wolf Border is unsensationally sensational.

The novel tells the story of Rachel Caine, a woman in her early forties who has devoted her life to the study and conservation of wolves in the wild. She has spent the past ten years in Idaho, tracking the migrations of the native wolves to and from the Canadian forests. Being in America suits Rachel just fine, not only because of her work on the reservation but because her native Cumbria has become a place of regret, family disagreement and troubling echoes from the past. A new job offer, plus a sudden and dramatic change in Rachel’s circumstance brings her home at last. The novel charts Rachel’s personal journey towards a new beginning as naturally as it charts the passage of the seasons. There is drama and there is conflict, there are hidden secrets and reawakened griefs, there is heart-stopping joy. All these things feel real, as the weather of Cumbria feels real and the plight of the wolves feels real. The plot reveals itself as the subset of character, rather than (as so tediously often) the other way around. There is no sense here of artificially upping the ante for the sake of ‘narrative drive’ or ‘jeopardy’ or some other, similarly treacherous commercial convention.

Instead, there are moments of true wonder, and what The Wolf Border reveals most tellingly is the magic that exists in the world, in our own private dialogue with existence, in our relationship with the landscapes that mark us, in the necessity of working out who we are and what we are for. I’m being deliberately unspecific about this novel, because I loved it so much. The most helpful thing I feel I can say about it is that I cannot remember the last time I cared so passionately, so personally, about a story’s outcome. The Wolf Border is the perfect fusion between fiction and reality, between the speculative and the mimetic. Hall brings insight to the commonplace, illuminating and ambushing the real with the revelatory spotlight of hyper-reality. It is such insistent modes of being and seeing that, for me, help to define the core of what speculative fiction is mostly about.

The horror? Which horror?

We had friends to stay a weekend or two back. Most of our conversation, unsurprisingly, revolved around books. During the course of our discussions, one of our friends mentioned that she hadn’t read any horror fiction in quite a while and felt like getting back into it. “I’m not sure where to start, though,” she said. “What would you recommend?”

I relished her question, not just because it offered me the opportunity to make a list (I’m always up for that) but because when considered side-by-side with science fiction, horror is undoubtedly the Cinderella genre. A lot of the discussions and arguments I take part in on the subject of horror tend to centre around the question ‘is it even worth reading?’ Even if they don’t care for science fiction particularly, most people are able to gain a sense of why others might enjoy it and find it relevant – it speculates about the future, it deals with pressing social or environmental concerns, it explores the possibilities of the human mind, man and machine, computers, life on other planets. Horror though, what’s that about? Monsters, and murderers, people getting themselves killed in disgusting ways.

That’s rubbish, of course, as much of a tired and inaccurate shorthand as the one about science fiction being about squids in space (and no, I’m not having a go at Margaret Atwood here. Most everything Atwood’s written in the past decade has been SF, her next novel is SF, she’s one of the most important practitioners of SF currently writing – who gives a stuff if she got a bit muddled over our esoteric terminology?) Horror literature goes back as far as science fiction, possibly further (and if you’re going by the Gernsback dictum, definitely further). It’s not just a matter of who got there first, though. These two strands of literature are different from one another in fundamental ways. There’s a stimulating and persuasive argument around this to be found in John Clute’s mini-masterpiece The Darkening Garden, the ‘short lexicon of horror’ now happily available again as part of Clute’s most recent collection of essays, Stay. Even if you don’t agree with his thesis, it’s a fascinating read, one that will get you thinking and questioning yourself about exactly what horror literature is, and what it means to you.

For myself, I would argue that horror literature is, above all, the most deeply and strikingly personal of the genres. Horror is very revealing, not just of the writer, but of the reader, too. Not just regarding questions of what you might be afraid of, but what aspects of yourself might be frightening, or hidden. Horror literature, as works by H. P. Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell powerfully demonstrate, is not revealed through a series of brutal actions, but through imagery, allusion, psychology, a slanted and peculiar vision, a personal worldview.  There’s nothing like reading or writing horror for putting you in the zone with yourself.

The death knell for horror literature is sounded roughly once every decade. But although the fashion for vampires or zombies (bless ‘em) may come and go, horror literature lurks, stalwartly (can you lurk stalwartly? I’m going to go with a yes) on and always will. So long as a writer can sit alone in a room and then, for no reason at all, start worrying about what might be on the other side of the door, it’s here to stay.

Which still leaves us with the question of where to start with reading it. I was going to go with a top ten books, then realised how impossible that would be – way too restrictive – and so I’m going with ten favourite writers instead. There may yet be overspill. And no need to mention that this list is highly personal. I’ve tended to steer away from classic weird – Poe, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, even my beloved Aickman – because there’s plenty of opinion and top ten lists built around these writers already. I’m concentrating on what’s being written now, and on the writers I personally return to, again and again. Horror was my first love. (And in no particular order) here’s why:

Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s understanding of the gothic is sensitive, articulate and refined. Her enthusiasm for the gothic is brutal, breathtaking and no-holds-barred. The thing with Oates is that she is never going to write hackneyed, generic horror fiction – and yet boy, can she deliver on the ‘yeuccchhh’ factor when she’s in the mood for it. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, and I mean a lot, and the closest I’ve come in recent years to not being able to finish a horror novel through sheer ‘no, this is too much’ discomfort with what I was reading was JCO’s Stoker-Awarded short novel Zombie. Do soldier on with it though, because it’s brilliant. There are at least three JCO short fiction collections devoted to horror stories of one stripe or another – I’d recommend any of them. For those who want to get stuck into a real JCO marathon, I’d recommend her masterpiece Bellefleur, her luscious, gorgeous, immortal take on the vampire novel, and The Accursed, which will reward your commitment – this is a long book and a tough climb in places – by giving you something lasting and extraordinary, including a Lovecraft-influenced chapter of sheer virtuosity.

Caitlin R. Kiernan. I first came across Kiernan’s work in a Best New Horror anthology towards the end of the nineties, and knew from the first moment of reading her that this was the kind of horror literature I had been looking for. If I were restricted to bringing one horror writer’s oeuvre to a desert island, it would be Kiernan’s. Her obsessive, inward-looking narrators, her natural instinct for the weird and above all, the eloquent beauty of her language makes Kiernan, for me, one of the most important horror writers of our time. I would recommend The Drowning Girl as the most accurate rendition of what it might actually feel like to be haunted, as well as the greatest horror novel of the last ten years. The Red Tree is almost as good. Or any of her short fiction, really.

Ramsey Campbell. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ramsey Campbell, both to me and to British horror fiction generally.  For anyone interested, I wrote about my own discovery of Ramsey’s fiction in a short essay, Rediscovering the Fantastic. But for anyone starting out on their own journey, I would say that Ramsey Campbell is probably the most important post-war British writer of horror fiction, and that if you have any interest in the horror genre at all you need to read at least one of his novels. Campbell’s emphases lie firmly on character and place – specifically his native Liverpool – and it is his understanding and empathy towards those characters that make us care so much, as readers, about what happens to them. Which, be warned, is mostly not good. My favourite Campbell probably remains Midnight Sun, but The Long Lost and Incarnate are pretty special too, and as the first Campbell I ever read, The House on Nazareth Hill has a preferred place in my heart. For short fiction, go with Ghosts and Grisly Things, one of Campbell’s more recent collections and every story a classic. And if you’re after more material about horror fiction, Ramsey’s collection of essays and reviews, Probably, is essential reading.

Stephen King. It would be easy not to include Stephen King in this list. Everyone’s heard of King, no need to talk about him, right? Wrong. King really is too important to ignore. More than that, he’s too much of a pleasure to ignore. I would count Stephen King as the writer who, for me, has most consistently that most elusive quality: page-turnability. King can tell stories like no other in my universe, and I love his voice. Favourites? I’m going to be contentious here and suggest The Tommyknockers, which scared the shit out of me for some reason (most diehard fans consider it ‘bad King’), The Shining (of course) and my personal favourite Hearts in Atlantis. Another essential read from King is the non-fiction Danse Macabre, his personal history of twentieth-century horror literature and film. It’s as readable as any of his novels, packed with personal insights and wonderful reading suggestions. A kind of horror bible!

And while we’re on the subject of King, don’t forget to sample the work of his son, Joe Hill. Hill broke into the genre with his extraordinary debut collection Twentieth Century Ghosts and I bet his dad was damned proud.  You can see the family relationship, if you’re looking carefully, and Hill has certainly inherited his father’s raw storytelling talent. But Hill’s stories are very much his own – there’s a bizarreness, a quirky twistedness to them that’s very different from King Sr. I ripped through Twentieth Century Ghosts in a day and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Kathe Koja. I’d been meaning to read Kathe Koja for ages. Then towards the end of last year, I read her reissued first novel The Cipher and wondered why I’d waited so long. I loved everything about this book: bizarre, Roadside-Picnic-like scenario (the entire novel is about a hole in the floor, basically), spiky, difficult characters (and that’s putting it kindly) and throughout a kind of obsessive, steadily worsening compulsion to do the unwise thing. I love novels with a small cast of interesting characters that hint at larger issues beyond the book’s parameters, and The Cipher is this kind of novel, exactly. I love Koja’s writing, too – there’s an urgency to it, a flickering darkness, a unique disquiet. I’ll definitely be reading more of her. Read this book!

Robert Shearman. I happen to think that Rob is one of the most talented writers working in Britain at the moment, and as a horror writer his unique vision is exactly what the genre has been waiting for. Rob’s stuff is so much his own it’s difficult to find anyone to compare him with. As a writer who first found his feet in the theatre, he is a master of dialogue, of conflict, of dramatic tension. But there’s more – his ideas are just so off the wall, so delightfully surprising and often so downright scary you’re left almost literally biting your nails in anticipation of what might happen. But then, Rob’s stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, too. Start with Remember Why You Fear Me and They Do Things Different There. Inimitable, and readable verging on addictive.

Otsuichi. I can’t remember now how or where I first heard about Otsuichi’s first collection to be translated into English, Zoo, but I’ll never forget the thrill of delight I experienced when I read that first story and realised how brilliant it was. Another truly unique voice, Otsuichi’s stories have a deadpan, ironical cast to them that I find irresistible. More irresistible still is his prose, matter-of-fact and weirdly poetic at the same time. One of the things I love so much about Japanese horror cinema is that it doesn’t in the slightest rely on familiar Hollywood tropes, and Otsuichi’s fiction has that same offbeat edginess about it.

Helen Marshall. When I read Helen’s first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, I found it so complete and so achieved I could hardly believe it was the work of a debut writer. Her new collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, is even better, and it’s wonderful to know she has a novel in the works. These stories are dark – they’re full of thwarted passions and untimely deaths – but Marshall’s prose is so rich and so detailed, so beautiful, that the effect never becomes oppressive. There’s almost a Clive Barker-y feel to some of her writing – see ‘The Mouth, Open’ from Hair Side, Flesh Side, for example – but without the rampant bloodlust! (Oh, and talking of Barker, EVERY horror fan MUST read The Books of Blood – possibly the most important set of horror stories since M. R. James’s ghost stories and still astonishing in their power thirty years after they were first published.)

Joel Lane. Joel’s stories were a revelation to me when I encountered them, first through Year’s Best anthologies, and then in the magazine The Third Alternative. Joel was in the vanguard of the so-called ‘miserabilist’ fiction movement in the 1990s: writers who focussed their attention on what was happening in Britain in the wake of Margaret Thatcher, and who used the language and imagery of dark fantasy and horror fiction to highlight sense of place and the troubled inner states of their protagonists. The way Joel wrote about cities, and memory, and the yearning sense of displacement of the alienated individual within a deconstructed society, spoke to me so eloquently, as did the ambiguous, understated tone of his stories. For me, Joel’s writing will always epitomise the very British horror of my own generation, and I know I’ll feel forever in his debt. Joel’s work is quiet but tremendously powerful. If you can, get hold of his first novel, From Blue to Black, because I think it’s his masterpiece. Otherwise try his collections The Lost District and Where Furnaces Burn.

Kelly Link. This is a cheat really, because Kelly Link isn’t a horror writer as such. But she’s too good not to mention – and her stories do include vampires, and dead people, and plenty of other weirdness that has them leaning towards the dark side more often than not. Kelly Link has spawned a generation of imitators, but no one can touch her for sheer force of imagination and irresistible storytelling. Like King, she’s unputdownable and the only thing wrong with her fiction is that there isn’t enough of it! Start with her new collection, Get in Trouble.

Peter Straub. Straub’s fiction is magisterial in its weight and quality. He is one of those writers who is criminally overlooked by the mainstream, even now. There’s something Oatesian in his ambition, and his novels Ghost Story and Shadowland are landmark works for me. The first Straub I read after Ghost Story was his collection Houses without Doors, and that too is a classic (his story ‘A Short Guide to the City’ is a perennial favourite). One of those writers I could easily immerse myself in for months at a time.

Jeff VanderMeer. As with Kelly Link, VanderMeer isn’t strictly a horror writer, but much of what he does trespasses on horror territory. VanderMeer’s first novel, Veniss Underground, was a kind of warped, noir-future Orpheus and Euridice story. As a debut it still feels monumentally strong, and VanderMeer’s work has only got better since. The denseness and richness of his language is all-absorbing, and of particular interest to me is the way VanderMeer likes to play around with form, whilst never letting go of the drive to tell a story. I would count his most recent work, the three-part Southern Reach trilogy, as one of the most important contributions to speculative fiction so far this century. It’s science fiction, but there’s a horror vibe deep enough to satisfy the darkest appetite.

Livia Llewellyn. Together with Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side, Livia Llewellyn’s collection The Engines of Desire is one of the most impressive horror debuts I’ve ever read. I loved every story in the book, but two of them, the horrific post-apocalypse tale ‘Horses’ and the Lovecraftian novella ‘Her Deepness’ shone out for me not just as brilliant but important. The thing I love most about Llewellyn’s stories – aside from her wonderful use of language, that is – is their willingness to be really bleak. ‘Horses’ is one of the most powerful horror stories I’ve read in this regard – not a single punch pulled, and you end with this sense of ‘fuck’ that doesn’t go away. I do hope that we’ll see a new collection, or even a novel-length work, from Livia Llewellyn in the near future (because I want to read it).

Yoko Ogawa. ‘Long after I realised that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, then finally a layer of mould appeared.’ (From ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa) Ogawa is the queen of disquiet. As in the above paragraph, she lets ordinary objects and everyday actions take on sinister aspects through context, setting up resonances and metaphors that spread out through the reader’s consciousness like small ripples on otherwise calm water. One of the things I love best about Ogawa is her own fondness for the linked story format, which for me has always been more interesting and flexible than straight linear narrative. Begin with the collection ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ comes from, Revenge.

Well, I think I count more than ten there, but I warned you there might be overspill. (This list could have been twice as long, easily.) I hope these suggestions act as a good starting point for anyone curious about the horror genre – there really is something for everyone. If I were forced to select just five books that summed up everything I love about horror literature, they’d be (again, in no particular order): 1) Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl 2) Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun 3) Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed 4) Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood and 5) Otsuichi’s Zoo. But then you’d be missing out on House of Leaves, North American Lake Monsters, Sourdough, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All, The Beautiful Red, The Secret Life of Houses, White is for Witching, Fugue State, The Barnum Museum, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, We Have Always Lived at the Castle, Don’t Look Now, Darkmans, Dr Haggard’s Disease… … … … … …

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

A new year, a new Europe…

His life had been erased like his books, set alight, reduced to ash and scattered. It no longer existed. But then, all lives were ultimately extinguished,  and in their passing nothing remained of the person who’d been – their dreams, their thoughts, who they loved, what they’d hated – from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon and down the ages to Jews.

Yet Shomer lives still.

(A Man Lies Dreaming p79) amld.ltidhar

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. In terms of both content and form that novel presents a bold statement, and its recognition in the World Fantasy Awards was the ‘yes!’ vote of its year. I was less fond of Tidhar’s follow-up, The Violent Century. Unlike some others, I found no problem with the author’s decision to eschew speech marks, and the terse rhythms of the narrative, styled to mimic the speech bubbles of a graphic novel, worked fine by me. It was the narrative itself that never won me over. Twentieth-century history with added superheroes? The Bond-style plot is paper thin, the bolt-on romance seriously unconvincing. As a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, Nick Harkaway’s more recent Tigerman, for me at least, does a far more interesting job.

Tidhar’s latest novel, A Man Lies Dreaming displays not only a return to form but a solid improvement. This is a brave book. Any writer as intelligent as Tidhar will be well aware of the near-impossibility and inherent foolhardiness of taking on a subject of the magnitude and gravitas of the Nazi holocaust as a material for fiction. So many have been there before him. Some have flailed around embarrassingly, others have exploited shamefully, a few have succeeded in increasing the sum of the world’s literature with grace and fervour. That Tidhar dares to go there is one thing. That he has managed to create a work that is original, and funny, and angry, and moving, and significant, beautiful even – these are achievements he should be proud of. Bravo.

Shomer, a Jew, a father, a writer of pulp fictions, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. He imagines a reality in which the communists won the 1933 elections, in which Hitler was expelled from Germany and forced to make his living as Wolf, a private detective in a London populated by his erstwhile comrades, all now similarly reduced in circumstance, scraping along the best they can, reviled as immigrants by Oswald Mosley’s ascendant Blackshirts.

Wolf’s farcical exploits and sexual misadventures are the stuff of pulp fiction – Shomer’s pulp fiction. It’s all very funny and very repulsive at the same time. But there’s more to it than that.  The alternate history in A Man Lies Dreaming kept reminding me of the real history in Menno Meyjes’s 2002 film Max, in  which John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a wealthy Viennese art dealer who feels a strange comradeship with the disaffected war veteran Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). This 1919 Hitler is history in embryo, an embittered ex-corporal still torn between his former yearning to be an artist and his newly found visibility on the political stage. Max shows us a glimpse of what might have been, a turning point in history where had circumstances been minutely otherwise, Hitler might have remained what he was at the time: a nonentity with pretensions.

He had begun to perceive the great conspiracy behind all things; perhaps even then, so early, he knew it was his destiny to fight it; and yet, in the final tally, he had lost. The Fall had made a mockery of Wolf. Imagine if he had succeeded, if Germany was his, its military and its citizens, to wield as he saw fit: what would have happened to the Jewish people then?

(A Man Lies Dreaming p 99)

And of course we as readers, living in the alternate world of Shomer’s imagination, know the answer to that question all too well.

The way Tidhar tackles his subject – linking it with contemporary issues such as American expediency politics, the casual (and not so casual) racism that continues to permeate British political culture, demonstrates how it is still not only possible but necessary for us to keep writing about the Nazi holocaust, that this task can still be accomplished with impact and originality and (perhaps most difficult of all) personal commitment. As Howard Jacobson does, rather differently, in his meta-dystopia J, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming shows us the holocaust as part of a historical continuum. It is not over, it is certainly not nearly enough to speak of it in hushed tones and then promptly forget about it. Given the airtime currently being lavished upon certain would-be members of parliament in our midst, the material relating to Oswald Mosley’s theoretical election victory near the end is particularly hard to read:

‘[Communism] has flooded our country with refugees. We have opened our borders, our arms, our homes to them, in friendship. And they came, in their thousands, in their thousands of thousands. Our cities reek of their cabbage! Their children speak foreign tongues in our schools. They are draining our country of its resources, they are taking the very bread from our own people’s mouths!’ (p238)

Tidhar’s novel also shares with Jacobson’s J the sense of being not just an exercise in possibility but a deeply personal, deeply committed statement by the author. This is what drives the book beyond mere cleverness and towards significance. (There is information relevant to this in the Historical Note at the end, but it is important to note that the novel stands perfectly well without it.)

And it is precisely because Tidhar has such fluent command of the non-fiction behind his fiction that he is able to play with it, to bend it so successfully into such bizarre shapes. There are hundreds of jokes in here – asides, quotes, comments, unmaskings, language-plays, amusing truisms about writing, there’s even an Elder Gods reference in amongst it all – the kind of tricks that only a writer who has fully assimilated their source material could pull off. As with any successful meta-text of this type, it is so soundly constructed as story that a reader who is less familiar with the history, politics or cultural background will be able to enjoy this novel perfectly well without having to consult a history book at every other page. For those who come to it more fully prepared, it will be a tour de force of ferocious ingenuity. It is also worth noting how splendid this book is as science fiction, and as a subversion of science fiction. Here again Tidhar knows his stuff, and lets it sing:

Eleven, old Ben struck, and the second stretched and stretched and in its expectant silence Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz Lang: huge shining buildings rose amidst the squalor of old London, by London Bridge a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pierced the sky. From the City of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala. This city of the future was brighter, brasher, awash in an electric glow which faded as he watched, the ghostly outline of this futuristic could-have-been slowly washing away. Wolf held his breath and Big Ben tolled, twelve, and one day ended, and a new day began. (p237)

I was worried when I first started reading that A Man Lies Dreaming was going to be too much like Osama, that in redrafting some of the narrative assumptions and stylistic techniques of the earlier novel, Tidhar was going to run the risk of making his own highly successful innovations look old hat. As I progressed through the novel I was relieved to find those apprehensions to be misplaced. Yes, A Man Lies Dreaming draws on the repertoire of techniques that laid the foundations in Osama, but it expands upon them, too – there’s a load of new stuff here, and a new fluency.  Tidhar isn’t just trying his strength any more – he’s grown into a mature writer who knows what he’s doing and why he is doing it. This is a good book. It deserves to be talked about, and Tidhar deserves to be praised.

 

autumn.hutchinsonFollow that, Dave Hutchinson! Remarkably, he does. If A Man Lies Dreaming hides its artifice behind the facade of our recent past, Europe in Autumn revolves around the lodestone of our possible future. If Tidhar knows his stuff, then so does Hutchinson. I have rarely seen the ambience of middle and Eastern Europe more succinctly and accurately captured by a British writer. This isn’t your usual kind of mitteleuropaeische Wehmut, though, this is a post-Soviet Europe, ravaged by stag weekends and fin-de-siecle exhaustion.  It’s superbly realised, with almost Scandinavian levels of deep irony and an economy of style that I (as a writer who tends to obsess over minutiae) found laudable and convincing. No fuss, no fannying about, just seriously good writing.

In a near-future Europe disenchanted with Schengen and fractured into a profusion of micro-states (each with its own hyper-evolved bureaucracy), Rudi is a chef minding his own business. How he manages to get co-opted into a secret pan-European organisation of spies and information traffickers is a mystery even to him. But there are bigger mysteries in store, and Rudi’s life will soon be in danger – as will the life of anyone associated with him…

To pigeon-hole this fabulous, tightly constructed, expertly wrought little masterpiece of science fiction merely as a spy caper would be to do it a serious injustice – yet the spy caper stuff is great, too. Funnier than James Bond, written with a level of literary understanding and invention that far surpasses anything muddled together by John Le Carre, Europe in Autumn is massively entertaining. It’s also the kind of SF one longs to see more of, the speculative materials used not merely as ornament but as backbone, handled with the lightness of touch that signals a continuing serious engagement and long, fond familiarity. I adored the reveal, the core concept. I’m not normally one for sequels, but I can understand how Europe in Autumn almost demands one.

Both these books are a joy to read, the kind that serve as markers along the road of SF’s great journey. Recommended.

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?

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Favourite Hallowe’en reads

I’ve seen a lot of people posting their best-loved Hallowe’en reads this week, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few of my own.

1) Peter Straub – Ghost Story.

A modern classic, and rightly so. Straub’s stories are always complex, lush with detail, and multi-layered. You’re already deep into the story before you fully realise what’s going on, that wandering-in-the-forest feeling epitomises everything a Hallowe’en read should be. Anyone who lists slasher movies or serial killer thrillers among their Hallowe’en favourites is missing the point. Hallowe’en – All Hallows Eve – is the night when spirits traditionally walk abroad. This is a time for exploring spirituality – both of the dark side and the light – for coming to terms with hard truths, for delving into the secrets of the past and perhaps uncovering something less than pleasant in the process. For the four ageing members of Straub’s Chowder Society in Ghost Story, this is a time of facing up to the consequences of their past actions – big style. I adore this book. I adore Straub’s erudite, meandering and occasionally obscure style. I’m also very fond of John Irvin’s 1981 film based on Ghost Story which, though it cannot hope to convey all the subtleties of the original novel, seems to me to be the epitome of what a great Hallowe’en movie should be: quiet, reflective, mysterious and chilling at the core.

2) Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching

One of my very favourite ghost stories of recent years, this short novel plays out big issues on an intimate stage. Its evocation of a particular milieu – the English seaside town – is perfectly executed, its portrayal of relationships, the closeness and distance between people, is razor sharp in its accuracy and pathos. White is for Witching is equally a tense family drama and a forthright examination of the divisions within contemporary British society. I read this in a single sitting. Haunting and masterful.

3) Joyce Carol Oates – Bellefleur

Ah, Bellefleur! This is sumptuous, gorgeous, genius, the vampire novel that dare not speak its name. The language, the irony, the beauty, the madness, the STORY! Oates’s intuitive understanding of the gothic is both articulate and sublime. For those who don’t have time to sink themselves into a 600-page epic just now, try the stories in Haunted instead. This exemplary collection was my first introduction to Oates and she’s been right there at the centre of my personal pantheon ever since.

4) Ramsey Campbell – The House on Nazareth Hill

I honestly do think this could be the perfect Hallowe’en read. It’s a haunted house story, basically, and as my first encounter with Ramsey Campbell’s fiction I’ll never forget the impact it made on me. I couldn’t put it down, and kept reading it far later into the night than I should have done. The central character, Amy, remains with me still as a powerful presence. And that inner room with no windows – brrrrr!

5) Clive Barker – The Books of Blood

Seminal works in the field of British horror literature, Clive Barker’s two collections of stories contain everything from ghosts to monsters to ur-beasts to mad obsessives in the best Dr Frankenstein tradition. Particular favourites among the stories include ‘The Forbidden’, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, ‘The Skins of the Fathers’, ‘Son of Celluloid’ and how could I forget ‘Rawhead Rex’?? But by far the best way of reading The Books of Blood is to start at Book 1 and read the whole lot through chronologically. Although the stories aren’t linked as such, their cumulative effect is considerable and their overall ethos is such that they demand the concentrated reading you might lavish on a novel. The Books of Blood were groundbreaking in their time and they have lost none of their power. Anyone – and I mean anyone – interested in writing horror fiction should and must read these stories.

And what will I be watching tomorrow evening? The Haunting (Wise’s 1963 version) is perhaps the quintessential Hallowe’en entertainment, and is pretty faithful to the original Shirley Jackson masterpiece into the bargain. If it’s atmospheric ghost stories you’re into then Amenabar’s The Others is pretty good, too.  I have a crazy, perfect love for the 1993 portmanteau film Necronomicon, the third segment of which scared me so badly the first time I saw it that I couldn’t sleep for a weekend (I tried it out on some friends a few months later – they were not amused, and I ended up having to bring a duvet downstairs for them all to hide under). My favourite film adaptation of Dracula is still the Coppola, no matter what anyone says. And for a dose of sheer Hallowe’en madness – with flying head-drillers and trans-dimensional dwarfs – what about Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm?

On balance though, I think tomorrow evening might be the perfect time to revisit a little-remarked-on but for me unforgettable adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Released as a TV movie in 1973 and starring James Mason as Polidori and David McCallum as Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein – the True Story is lush and overlong and over-the-top and with enough of the earnestness and passion of the original story to make it compelling. I first saw this in 1974, on the night ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. My parents were having a Eurovision party downstairs (they were young, they were foolish) and my brother and I were treated to an unlimited supply of Twiglets and the free use of the black-and-white portable TV in their room upstairs. I was nine years old, my brother only seven, so I’m really not sure if Frankenstein was the kind of viewing Mum and Dad had in mind, but we watched it anyway. It seemed to go on for hours, and I was mesmerised throughout. It was many years before I saw it again, but I still remembered whole scenes perfectly and, perhaps because it was one of those so-important early influences, it had lost none of its power for me. Jane Seymour’s night at the ball, Elizabeth in the ice, the final pursuit to the cave. When I saw that Frankenstein – the True Story was to be released on DVD, I pre-ordered it at once. And having talked this out here I’m decided – tomorrow at around 9pm I’m going to unleash the monster from its cellophane wrapping…