Category Archives: writers

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now: thinking about Strange Horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agents of Dreamland

“The best foreshadowing never seems like foreshadowing.”

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

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

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

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

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

An intermission

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

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Dreams Before the Start of Time

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

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

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

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

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

 

2084

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

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

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

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

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

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Spectacular Darkness

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

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

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

 

The elephant in the room

As part of his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh recently expressed his concern that climate change as a subject matter is not being adequately covered or even taken seriously by ‘serious’ novelists:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

He goes on to assert that the bulk of the literature that enjoys critical ascendancy today is indeed a literature of concealment, the skill of its writers directed towards foregrounding quotidian ultra-realism at the expense of more extraordinary and therefore less realistic narrative events, that the art of the modern novel is all about filler material:

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

It’s a fascinating theory, and would be all the more fascinating, perhaps, if it had a greater basis in reality. The science fiction reader and writer will rightly take issue with Ghosh, reeling off an ever-expanding list of novels from the past decade and much further back than that in which climate change is the fulcrum, the driver, the core subject matter. That Ghosh has specifically chosen to exclude science fiction from the debate is both weird and frustrating. ‘When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss’, Ghosh writes. He can think of only a handful of novelists – Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and TC Boyle chief among them – that have engaged with the subject directly. Moreover:

It could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

Ghosh seems very preoccupied with the concept of ‘seriousness’, as well he might be. But is Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels truly a less ‘serious’ novel than Rachel Cusk’s Transit? Is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World less worthy of literary analysis than Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils? As a proposition, this is clearly ridiculous, and leads one to wonder exactly what Ghosh – himself a previous winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award – is trying to say here. That literary fiction of a certain stripe does not see fit to concern itself much with current affairs, perhaps? He goes on to present another mildly diverting theory: that ‘serious’ writers are themselves imaginatively imprisoned by the assumptions and material trappings of our toxic, carbon-emitting global economy, that they have driven themselves (literally) into a place of such complicity that overt criticism or even discussion has become impossible. While it may be true that anyone living within a society and not actively campaigning against the injustices it supports is complicit with it to an extent, as Ghosh himself concedes, most contemporary writers across a wide variety of backgrounds and literary interests point precisely to climate change (alongside racism, social inequality and the obduracy of the political class) as the subject that most preoccupies them on a daily and often hourly basis.

No. What concerns Ghosh most seems grounded within this concept of seriousness, the perceived suitability of climate change as a subject for serious fiction. It’s fine for writers to talk about climate change in interview or other forms of non-fiction, Ghosh maintains, but write a novel about it and you’ll be given the side-eye by the broadsheet critics or – worse still – no eye at all:

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

Ghosh’s essay is, as one would expect, thoughtful, concerned and well meaning. But once one begins to deconstruct it, one cannot help wondering why he didn’t go one step further and ask himself what this mansion of his actually stands for, and whether the reverence he affords it might not be part of the problem? If the ‘serious’ fiction he so desperately wants climate change to be ‘acceptable’ to as a subject matter has not always been conservative, reflective of societal norms rather than challenging to them? Whether it is hailed as serious by establishment elites precisely because it is happy to be non-confrontational, shunted off down the side-streets of political relevance, to write about the past rather than the future?

Ghosh talks about a ‘feedback loop’, a chicken-and-egg situation in which climate change is not deemed serious as a subject matter ergo few serious novelists write about it ergo it is not deemed serious etc etc etc  What he does not acknowledge is that in writing this essay, he is himself contributing to a feedback loop that dismisses science fiction literature as inherently generic, not-serious, and therefore unworthy of consideration within the context of this discussion. That by concentrating his attentions upon an area of literature that is at least partially susceptible to propping up outmoded and often damaging value systems, he is himself playing into the hands of the ‘men at the mansion’ who must, after all, find it pretty convenient to see works of literature that seek actively to question our current code of values and their impact upon our planet dismissed as a bunch of hacks writing about aliens.

The solution, for serious writers, is to stop hammering on the mansion door and have a look at what’s going on beyond the electronic barrier fence.

The serious fiction about climate change Ghosh is seeking is in plentiful supply, growing in breadth and complexity all the time. If only Ghosh could shift the goalposts of his ‘seriousness’, he would see that immediately.

(If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the out-house writing ghost stories.)

#weird2016: Lanark by Alasdair Gray

lanark-gray“What’s worth saying, three decades on, is that Lanark , in common with all great books, is still, and always will be, an act of resistance. It is part of the system of whispers and sedition and direct communion, one voice to another, we call literature. Its bravery in finding voice, in encouraging the enormous power of public, national, artistic, sexual and political imagination, is not something to take for granted.”

(Janice Galloway, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Us‘, The Guardian 2002)

In the Epilogue to Lanark, which can be found somewhere towards the latter quarter of this behemoth text, Gray directly references both Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon – ‘mostly conversations between disappointed Socialists’ – as key influences upon the novel. As Darkness at Noon, which I read at least four times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, was the work that most influenced me away from dogmatic socialism, and 1984, which I read for the first time probably in the very same year I first read Darkness at Noon, was one of the key works that introduced me to the vast radical intellectual potential of science fiction, Gray’s direct-to-reader irruption into his own novel raised more than a frisson of fellow feeling.

Lanark is so much more than this, though – so much more than excited underlining of key passages and thinking bloody hell, this could have been written yesterday. Interwoven with and inseparable from the blistering political commentary on our own times – and yes, Lanark truly is so prescient, so relevant to today’s political crisis it feels newly minted – are passages of such emotional and imaginative power they raise the whole from the merely important to the truly great.

I loved this book. Lanark is the kind of novel one emerges from with a renewed and evangelical appreciation of what writing is for.

*

In his engaging and candid introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Lanark, the novelist William Boyd describes his first encounter with the monster – he was commissioned to review it for the TLS when it was first published – and recalls his confusion regarding the novel’s fantastical elements:

“I know now why I didn’t respond with wholehearted enthusiasm to the allegorical story of Lanark in the city of Unthank. I was positioning myself, as all writers unconsciously do – and particularly as a first novelist whose first novel had just been published — using criticism of others to evaluate and proclaim what I myself stood for. I was and am a realistic novelist and I felt strongly then that fable, allegory, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism and the rest were not my literary cup of tea.  But I think that in my 1981 review I unconsciously prefigured aspects of my recent, late reading of the book.  The structure of Lanark – the small naturalistic novel embedded in a large eclectic one – is, it seems to me now, precisely the reason for the book’s enduring success.  I realize now that, for Alasdair Gray, the last thing on earth he wanted to achieve in Lanark was to write, and be hailed for writing, ‘a minor classic of the literature of adolescence’…[That] could never have been enough: every ambition that Gray had for his long-gestating book obliged him to create something larger, more complex, more difficult, more alienating. Gray needed the overarching machinery of allegory and fable to make Lanark transcend its origins.”

A fair enough analysis, one might think, and at least experience has brought Boyd a deeper understanding of Gray’s intentions. Yet – like so many writers and critics who disdain the fantastic or at the least entertain grave suspicions about its fitness to be included within the canon of ‘great literature’ – we still see Boyd stumbling about, stubbing his toe on concepts such as ‘allegory’ and ‘fable’, reminding us in the process of much of the inept debate that attended the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant just a year or two ago.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to view Lanark in terms of it being split into two ‘realistic’ books and two ‘science fiction’ books. The point and the glory of Lanark – and of much of the greatest science fiction – is that the two are inseparable. One of the most powerful passages in the entire novel – Duncan Thaw’s descent into madness at the end of the ‘realistic’, Glasgow-set Book 4 – bleeds seamlessly into the wire and workings of the nightmarish dystopia of Glasgow’s shadow-self, the city of Unthank. Thaw is Lanark, Lanark Thaw. There is little to be gained in seeking to pigeonhole them and certainly not clarity. Towards the end of this sequence, Glasgow begins to morph very visibly into Unthank: the scant trickle of river, the towering municipal building, the ‘tomb-rotten pile’ of the necropolis:

He remembered a stone-built city of dark tenements and ornate public buildings, a city with a square street plan and electric tramcars…but below a starless sky this city was coldly blazing. Slim poles as tall as the spire cast white light upon the lanes and looping bridges of another vast motorway. On each side shone glass and concrete towers over twenty floors high with lights on top to ward off aeroplanes. Yet this was Unthank, though the old streets between towers and motor lanes had a half-erased look, and blank gables stood behind spaces cleared for car parks.

There is a sense of utter desolation and loss, the sense of life and creative freedom slipping away under the foul iron hand of central planning, monetary imperatives, coercive control.  When talks are prepared and essays are written about the key works of social science fiction written in Britain over the past hundred years – works that have come to define our science fiction century – we are all used to hearing about Brave New World and 1984, Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr Moreau. We are less used to hearing about Lanark. which seems to me to be a dire and almost laughable oversight. Lanark is a towering achievement in terms of its creative expression, its social comment but also its science fiction. Gray seizes the levers of science fiction with an uncanny natural ability, driving the machine forward with instinct and purpose. Gray is no science fiction tourist. He makes himself a part of the conversation not by covertly seeking admittance but by barrelling into the room and raising a storm. His science fiction feels intense and sophisticated – a polemic in the European tradition of argument-making and ideas-formation – and yet at the same time urgent, rough-hewn, so raw it is bloody.

*

Again and again, Duncan/Lanark finds himself crushed beneath the absolute incompatibility of creativity and capitalism, freedom of thought and the money-making impulse. At its heart, Lanark is a portrait of the artist as a young man – another of the key texts referenced directly by Gray in his crafty (and very funny – Lanark is funny, folks) Epilogue.  As every serious artist before him, Duncan Thaw has first to win the trust and admiration of the system before rejecting it utterly:

“This exam is endangering an important painting. It would be blasphemy to waste my talent making frivolous decorations for a non-existent liner. But I see your difficulty. You must uphold the art school, while I am upholding art. The solution is simple. Do not award me this diploma. I promise not to feel offended. The diploma is useless, except to folk who want to be teachers.”

This realisation – that like every great artist he is essentially on his own in uncharted territory – is both exhilarating and terrifying. In one of my favourite passages in Lanark, Duncan Thaw feels furious with an art school assignment – ‘Washing Day’ – for being so tame, so lacking in relevance, that he is minded not to attempt it. Then he finds himself swept along, subverting the notion of quaintness in a stark, ecstatic expression of his own vision, his own Glasgow:

His pen paused above the page then descended and sketched the tree on Sauchiehall Lane, making it larger, and leafless, and among the tenements and back greens of Riddrie. Around it three dwarfish housewives were stretching ropes between iron clothes poles, and he drew them from a memory of a home help who had looked after the house while his mother was dying. They wore headscarves, men’s boots, and big aprons covered their chests and skirts giving them a sexless, surgical look. At the top of the picture the tree’s highest branch stuck into a strip of sky among the tenement chimneys. He remembered a Blake engraving of a grey ocean with an arm sticking out of a wave, the hand clutching at the empty sky. Another Blake engraving showed a tiny pair of lovers watching a small frenzied figure set foot on a ladder so thin and high that the top rested in the sickle of a moon. A caption said, “I want! I want!” Thaw drew a moon in the sky above the treetop.

*

Lanark is a simple and in some ways familiar story: a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the years after the second world war discovers he is unlike other boys, that he loves reading and painting. To the consternation of his parents and teachers, he refuses to let his creative ambition be defined by the demands of a system geared towards making money. Thaw goes to college and there begins to find friends who are at least partially of the same mind, though his continuing difficulties in forming relationships with the opposite sex, coupled with chronic illness and an obsessive, irascible temperament, combine to plunge him into a spiral of depression and poor physical health from which he fails ultimately to escape. Thaw dies tragically, in a kind of accidental suicide, and then seems to pass into a hell that proves to be nothing more than a starker, darker portrayal of the world he has left.

Is Unthank one of Duncan’s murals, a kind of John Martin-like vista of horror revealing the corruption and wrongheadedness of the contemporary political landscape? Is Unthank a warning – a doomsday scenario – or merely an accurate depiction of the world as we currently experience it? Alasdair Gray’s Lanark has been described as the novel that kickstarted the Scottish literary renaissance – James Kelman, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh all cite him as a life-changing influence. Scotland’s makar, Jackie Kay, insists that it was meeting and talking with Alasdair Gray as a teenager that gave her the confidence to think of herself as ‘a writer’. We should also note that it was an Englishman and a science fiction writer – Anthony Burgess – who first hailed Lanark as ‘a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom’.

Lanark is important to Scotland, important to science fiction, important to modernism. It is novels of of such passionate ambition that reinvigorate the whole idea of literature for a new generation. Some of them – Lanark, for example – will continue to do so, for one generation after another.