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Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Race – real-time review

Some of you may well be familiar with Des Lewis’s real-time reviews, which, rather than following the orthodox star-rated or synopsis-plus approach to literary criticism, offer instead something rather different: a personal journey through the book at the time of reading. Well, Des has been at it again, I’m happy to say, and reading his reactions to The Race has been a pleasure indeed. You can find his thoughts, reflections, explorations and discoveries at his live-blog here.

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – non-fiction focus

The non-fiction category of SF awards is often sorely neglected, not just in terms of the number and variety of nominations received, but in terms of overall discussion. We relegate this category at our peril, however, because an informed, rigorous and enthusiastic critical hinterland is what might be deemed a desirable necessity, crucial to the advancement and betterment of any field of interest, with science fiction being no exception.

As with short fiction, we are now in a position to access more information, speculation and argument about SF than ever before. Whilst some remain critical of the digital ‘democracy of opinion’, arguing that the sheer bulk of unedited, unsolicited and ill-informed commentary can have only a diluting and detrimental effect on the discourse, I am not one of them. I count universal access to critical platforms as unequivocally a good thing. The space available is infinite, ergo there is room for everyone and no ‘wasted space’. We should not forget that online magazines, forums, blogs and discussion boards have provided and continue to provide both platforms and entry points for those who might never have felt the confidence to submit articles to print magazines – magazines they might not have known about or could not have afforded to subscribe to in the first place. The diversification of commentary through digital media is one of the most welcome developments in our field in recent years. And if you happen to come across a piece of rhetoric that seems pointlessly aggressive, lacking in direction, badly written, offensive or just plain awful (as you surely will) it takes less than a second to exercise your discretion and close the window.

One criticism that I have some sympathy for is the claim that the current fashion for short, immediately assimilable ‘thinkpieces’ has led to a corresponding decline in sustained, quality criticism in online venues. Certainly, the perceived need for speed of response – to have one’s say on a current topic immediately and ahead of the rest – has tended to mitigate against essays that take longer than an hour to write or ten minutes to read. But surely this matter is in our own hands? Whilst it can be frustrating to see any number of half-arsed blog posts rattled off at the speed of light and before the author has given themselves time to form a properly constructed argument, there is no law that states that we ‘have’ to react, react, react, immediately and with venom. There is plenty of quality work out there, and we owe it to ourselves as readers, writers and critics to discover it, promote it, argue over it and contribute to it. One of the salient advantages of online criticism is the writer’s ability to link to other relevant works, thus bringing divergent voices and points of view simultaneously to the same arena. This is a whole new way of constructing criticism, and should not be downplayed.

Deciding what to nominate in the non-fiction category can be especially difficult because of the variety of what’s on offer and the differing modes in which it’s presented. How can we possibly decide between a full-length monograph, and a 1,000-word essay, for example? I’m not even going to try and answer that question at this point – that’s an argument for another day (or perhaps for two separate and distinct award categories..?) Rather I’d like to draw your attention to a number of non-fiction items, in various formats, that happened to catch my attention in 2014. In no particular order, then:

 

Call and Response by Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications) This collection of essays on everyone from H. G. Wells to China Mieville showcases Paul Kincaid’s ongoing commitment to and engagement with science fiction literature to marvellous effect. The table of contents brings together essays culled from publications as various as Foundation, The TLS, Strange Horizons, the LARB and Vector, and includes all-new section introductions and a generous handful of previously unpublished pieces. Essential on every level.

Greg Egan by Karen Burnham (Modern Masters of Science Fiction, University of Illinois Press) I snapped this up when it was cheap on Kindle, because I enjoy Karen Burnham’s criticism and because I think Greg Egan is a writer I need to get to grips with, at entry level at the very least. I think this is a wonderful monograph. Burnham clearly knows Egan back to front at both a literary and a scientific level. She’s in sympathy with his ideals as a writer, but never lets her appreciation of what he’s up to blind her to the criticisms levelled against him. Her enthusiasm and knowledge bounce off the page, and if I wanted a travelling companion on the road to understanding a writer so unabashedly scientific in his approach to science fiction, I could not have asked for a better one. This book is entertaining, informative, and endlessly thought-provoking.  It has also left me with the resolution to read at least one Greg Egan novel this year.

Stay by John Clute (Beccon Publications) In common with the Paul Kincaid book, John Clute’s 2014 collection of essays boasts a new introduction, several previously unpublished pieces (including a never-before-seen short story) as well as updates and revisions to all previously published essays. John Clute is one of our greatest commentators bar none. His essays form some of the most astute and articulate literary criticism around; they are also works of art, and I live in a simmering state of outrage that he remains more or less unknown outside the genre. Included in Stay is ‘The Darkening Garden’, a ‘short lexicon of horror’ and one of the most persuasive and ingenious analyses of horror fiction I have ever read (even if you don’t agree with it, it’s still brilliant, and would be worth the cover price all by itself). Nor should we forget Clute’s irregular column for Strange Horizons, Scores. Particular highlights for me in 2014 would include his thoughts on Lucius Shepard’s Beautiful Blood and Jo Walton’s My Real Children and his side-by-side analysis of Howard Jacobson’s J and Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest.

Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: a look at two new short fiction magazines – Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture) I truly don’t have enough good words to say about this piece. It’s a multi-part essay in which the two internally-linked sub-sections on the magazines in question (Terraform and Uncanny) form essential components. I don’t always agree with Jonathan on a point-by-point basis, but I admire his criticism enormously, and believe that if we had more commentators like him – rigorous, knowledgeable, engaged, and most importantly uncompromised by genre factionalism or the concerns thereof – the critical hinterland of science fiction would be in a much ruder state of health. In Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens, Jonathan discusses two seemingly opposed tendencies within genre short fiction (and one might argue within genre fiction as a whole), the reflection of said tendencies within the magazine culture and the implications for the vitality of new short fiction and emerging writers. Much of his concern is tied up in what he sees as the shifting of the centre ground of SF from a primarily ideas-based ‘branch of non-fiction’ towards a mulch of ‘over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions’. He is just as keen to interrogate a literary landscape in which new science fiction stories are not so much a medium of communication with an audience as the currency of social advancement within the genre.

I remain undecided as to how much of Jonathan’s argument I agree with – all mulchy middle ground, me – but I find much that interests me in his viewpoint, and the gutsiness of his writing always leaves me feeling liberated and inspired generally. I feel wholeheartedly grateful that he has written this essay, as well as what might be deemed its companion pieces, Short Fiction and the Feels, and A Perspective on Perspectives. I am always genuinely shocked when I notice people feeling threatened by essays like these. If we are to evolve and compete as a branch of literature, objective, up-front criticism of this kind is what we need, and a lot more of it.

Transgressing Genre Boundaries and All That by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta) Science fiction is a unique literature and a radical literature. Shouldn’t we be fighting to keep it that way? Like Jonathan McCalmont’s essay above, Ethan Robinson’s piece is an articulate and robust interrogation of the state of science fiction literature today, the direction it appears to be taking and whether the push towards the convergence of the science fictional and the mainstream is in any sense desirable. It’s a wonderful piece of polemic, one I’ve commented about before and recommend unreservedly. Whether you agree with it or not, Ethan’s argument is valuable, timely and absolutely necessary. More like this, please! (And if there’s any way we can group his ‘Sturgeonblogging’ series of essays under a single project heading, nominate that, too!)

Review: Interstellar by Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Abigail Nussbaum is shaping up to be one of our most knowledgeable and articulate critics. This essay on Nolan’s film is a fine example of what she does so brilliantly, commenting on the larger movements within science fiction by means of close focus on a single work or group of works. She’s such a good writer. Her piece Mad as Hell, Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin is also pretty much essential reading.

Random Snapshots of Book Hunting in Downtown Nairobi by Mehul Gohil. Exactly what it says on the tin. This is a wonderful piece, packed with insights, compelling writing and the love of science fiction. This was billed as Part 1, and though the essay is complete in itself I am still hoping Part 2 will appear at some point in the future.

The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl by Chinelo Onwualu (Omenana) A short piece, but an essential read.

Black Nerds , Black Cool, and Afrofuturism by Troy L. Wiggins is exactly the kind of longer, in-depth essay that is vital to the genre, to promoting diversity, understanding and exploration within the genre, and that I for one would love to see more of. Please read this.

China Dreams: contemporary Chinese Science Fiction by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) Ken Liu is tireless in his promotion of Chinese science fiction, and it’s wonderful to see Clarkesworld taking the initiative here not just in bringing us more stories, but more information about them, too. This essay is a medium-length overview of the field as it currently stands. As Liu himself says upfront, giving anything like a comprehensive assessment of a literature so intrinsically diverse and multitudinous is pretty much impossible, but here at least is a place to start. A must-read.

I Love Writing Books – so I Need to Get Better at Writing Them by Kameron Hurley. I admire Kameron Hurley as a writer. I also like Kameron Hurley’s blog, and feel a generous measure of identification with the stuff she has to say about the writing process, emphasising the absolute necessity of consistent hard work and perseverance. She’s always worth reading, on any subject, and I admire her honestly. Her piece Some (Honest) Publishing Numbers, and (Almost) Throwing in the Towel is refreshingly candid about the whole getting-published-and-staying-published circus.

Me and Science Fiction: SF and Politics by Eleanor Arnason (Strange Horizons) “What I like about SF as a traditional category is that it has room for both slipstream and pop culture. It does not merely use pop culture, as a fine art writer might do, it includes it. The gamers and cosplayers and comic fans are not the subjects of our art. They are us.” Eleanor Arnason’s series of columns for Strange Horizons have been excellent and I hope there’ll be more of them. She has a way of inviting people into her writing, facing down challenging subjects in a dynamic and inclusive manner. Do also take a look at Me and Science Fiction: Books and the Death of the Middle Class, also in Strange Horizons.

Strange Horizons Bookclub: Tigerman by Niall Harrison, Aishwarya Subramanian and Maureen Kincaid Speller (Strange Horizons) A fascinating discussion of a book I thought I wasn’t going to get on with (because superheroes) but then did. (It’s stayed with me actually, far more than I thought it would.) The participants in this roundtable found plenty to talk about, and this article provides the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to get deeper into Tigerman, or simply to eavesdrop on an informed and entertaining analysis of some aspects of contemporary science fiction, beginning with the question of whether Tigerman can be considered properly science fictional in the first place.  These book clubs are a wonderful innovation at SH – I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture by Nisi Shawl (Strange Horizons) This truly is an essential read for any reviewer, to be bookmarked and passed on at every opportunity.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife) The only thing wrong with MKS’s reviews is that we don’t see more of them! See also her review of Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen at Strange Horizons, and let’s hope Maureen decides she’s up for blogging the Clarke again this year, because her 2013 posts were a highlight of the awards season.

Feminist World Building: Toward Future Memory by L. Timmel Duchamp (The Cascadia Subduction Zone) CZS is a fascinating periodical that really should be better known than it is. This essay blends the personal with the historical in an intricate and involving way and is exactly the kind of considered, informed non-fiction writing the genre needs more of. It’s powerfully argued and beautifully constructed. A keeper.

Biting Style: The Bone Clocks and Anti-Fantasy by Max Gladstone. This is a thoughtful and perceptive essay, arguing that Mitchell’s ham-fisted use of fantasy in The Bone Clocks was kind of intentional.  I was personally very disappointed by the novel, and (though I hate to admit it, even now) ended up coming down more on the side of James Wood’s less than generous analysis in the New Yorker. But I found Gladstone’s piece so fascinating and well argued that it almost – almost – persuaded me to reconsider. For an impassioned Joycean ‘yes!’ to The Bone Clocks (and an antidote to the Wood piece), see James Smythe’s affirmatory review at Strange Horizons.

The Expanding Borders of Area X: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach in the Context of a Weird Renaissance by Scott Nicolay (Weird Fiction Review). A great little essay on the history of weird fiction, the reasons for its current flowering, and how Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal trilogy fits into that. It’s also worth noting that Nicolay’s own debut collection Ana Kai Tangata has received some great press and is a likely candidate for some awards of its own this year. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Writing is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence by Jason Starr (Los Angeles Review of Books) A lovely piece that takes an in-depth look at a set of letters written by Dick and McKimmey ‘when they were both young, emerging genre writers’. Starr’s essay also makes some more general observations about the value of correspondence as an insight into a writer’s life and work. As someone who has derived significant pleasure from reading published volumes of writers’ letters over the years, this subject interests me a great deal. Only time will tell if the form will survive the internet (I think it will – writers love writing to each other, and we’re going to carry on doing it; whether that’s physically or electronically is of lesser importance) but this sensitive and personal reminiscence does a good job of reminding us of why such letters are to be treasured.

Rambling, Offensive and Unbeatable: Beam Me Up, Old School Sci-Fi by Sandra Newman (The Guardian) “The average reader is no longer a mind-blown teen who will accept any unpleasantness in exchange for cool ideas. The average reader is the average reader. So editors are acquiring books according to criteria that were formerly incidental to the genre – quality, readability, plots that make sense. The twisted misogyny is gone, and with it the bracing misanthropy. The cool ideas are still there, but a certain anarchic power has been lost.” There was a dismaying and predictably knee-jerk reaction to Newman’s piece in some quarters, with people choosing to interpret it as a call either to excuse or, even more bizarrely, put back the racism and misogyny that dogs many of the science fiction texts that are considered by the orthodoxy as classic. This is so obviously not what Sandra Newman was saying. Like Jonathan McCalmont and Ethan Robinson above, what she’s talking about is the slide towards a new orthodoxy in SF, a bland kind of crossover that doesn’t really say much of anything, much less voice opinions that might be considered provocative. The piece may be roughly worded in places, but what it has to say about the maverick tradition in science fiction is well worth reading and considering.

 

Don’t forget that nominations for the BSFA Awards close on January 31st. Get yours in now!

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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Flesh and Bones

“Kevern, look. I don’t know when your mother did these, but they are of another time. Art has changed. We have returned to the primordial celebration of the loveliness of the natural world. You  can see there is none of that in what your mother did. See how fractured her images are. There is no harmony here. The colours are brutal – forgive me, but you have asked me and I must tell you. I feel jittery just turning the pages. Even the human body, that most beautiful of forms, is made jagged and frightful. The human eye cannot rest for long on these, Kevern. There is too much mind here. They are disruptive of the peace we go to art to find.” (J, p 272)

 

When the longlist for the Man Booker prize was announced two months ago, I expressed delight that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had been selected – a choice that could only, I suggested, be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker – and surprise at the inclusion of Howard Jacobson. Not that the choice of Jacobson himself was anything out of the ordinary – he’s won the prize once already – but that in J he had produced a work that everyone seemed to agree was science fiction. I felt curious about that, to put it mildly, and thought it might be interesting in the run-up to the prize to read both works and compare them, to discover how two such outwardly dissimilar writers had chosen to approach speculative themes, to see which – if either – eventually made it through to the shortlist.

We now know the answer to that last – Jacobson’s J made the cut, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks didn’t. But what of the books themselves? Mitchell’s novel was the bookies’ favourite right through the longlist period, with both mainstream and SFF critics expressing strong opinions about it, and its disinclusion came as something of a shock. Conversely, no one seemed to be talking much about J, and the previously Booker-crowned Jacobson appeared something of an outsider. At the time of the shortlist announcement I was about halfway through The Bone Clocks, and planning to move on to J as soon as I’d finished. Having now read them both. I think it’s safe to say that my opinions coming out of this particular reading experience are pretty much the opposite of what I expected. That in itself has made this mini-project worthwhile.

I went into The Bone Clocks from the position of having read all Mitchell’s previous works bar one (The Thousand Autumns) and considered them all well above average, both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of what Mitchell was trying to achieve with it. I had a particular fondness for Black Swan Green, and thought both the concept and execution of Cloud Atlas close to miraculous. I was expecting big things of The Bone Clocks, especially given that it had been widely tagged as Mitchell’s most openly speculative novel to date.

That is true – it is – but that goes no way towards mitigating the fact that in my opinion it is also Mitchell’s weakest novel by quite some distance. The mainstream critics who thought the novel was let down by its ‘plunge’ into fantasy in the fifth segment pointed to the rest of the novel – its five realworld sections – as proof of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. If only he’d ditch all this awful genre nonsense, they seemed to be saying, we might actually have a decent writer on our hands. Many of those same critics have pointed to Mitchell’s characterisation – and his portrayal of his central character Holly Sykes in particular – as the chief strength of the novel, but for me it felt patchy at best, bland for the most part, and dire at worst. Far from being a brilliantly realised creation Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own. We learn little, if anything, of Holly’s interests or ambitions. As she appears in ‘A Hot Spell’ (the novel’s first long segment) she is deliberately set up to be a ‘typical’ fifteen-year-old girl, enamoured of the wrong boyfriend and looking for any excuse to cut loose from her parents. I found Mitchell’s realisation of the teenage mind unconvincing. He deliberately sets out to make Holly as ‘average’ as possible, scattering her speech with contractions and ‘causes, but his portrayal of her is inconsistent – he has Holly referencing Radio 4’s Thought for the Day at one point, and her stroppiness and decision to become a runaway feel like bolt-on elements, exercises in youthful alienation rather than the real deal. In contrast with the beautifully evoked, deeply felt ambience of Black Swan Green, the whole of this part one seems strangely flat, a recapitulation stripped of weight and personal investment. The checklist of references to contemporary politics and music has all the verisimilitude of stage decoration for a 1980s theme party. As the book progresses Holly becomes even less her own person, dragooned into action first as a winning waif pursued by an amoral serial seducer, then as the pissed-off partner of an obsessive war reporter (some of the dialogue that is given to Holly in that section is just awful) and as ‘mysterious other’ for a morally bankrupt author later on. We are asked to see Holly as ‘special’ – yet aside from the fact that she hears voices, we know nothing about her specialness, because we know next to nothing about her. We are interested in her because our attention is caught by the way she keeps cropping up throughout the book – but shorn of the forward momentum granted to her by the plot, there is remarkably little substance to Holly Sykes. She is wooden throughout, a narrative placeholder. When you consider the wonderful characterisation we saw in Cloud Atlas – the Sixsmith/Frobisher section contains some of the finest writing Mitchell has yet produced – and the brilliant portrayal of the teenager Jason in Black Swan Green, this is still more of a pity.

The most consistent character-building we find in The Bone Clocks comes in ‘Myrrh is Mine, its Bitter Perfume’ (the novel’s second segment) and ‘Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet’ (its fourth). The ‘hero’ of the former is Hugo Lamb, who gave a cameo appearance as Jason’s loathsome cousin in Black Swan Green and who appears here as an even more loathsome Cambridge undergraduate and amateur-soon-to-turn-professional sociopath. Hugo’s attitudes and behaviours are worse than vile, and he is brilliantly written. Equally so is Crispin Hershey, an embittered novelist who takes his revenge on a literary critic with appalling results. (In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mitchell insisted that the character of Hershey was not based on Martin Amis. Dessicated Embryos, he reminded us, was the title of a piano work by Erik Satie, not a backhanded reference to one of the younger Mr Amis’s early successes. But Red Monkey? Hal ‘The Hyena’ Grundy?? Come on.) Both Lamb’s portion of the narrative and Hershey’s are dynamic and vigorous, enlivened by moments of genuine comedy and, in Hershey’s case, pathos. A shame then that ‘The Wedding Bash’, part three of the novel and potentially just as interesting as the two sections that bookend it, turns out to be another misfire. Its protagonist Ed Brubeck was interesting in ‘A Hot Spell’ – intelligent, mature beyond his years and a bit of a loner, he came off the page far more forcefully than Holly. But when he reappears as a war journalist in ‘The Wedding Bash’, it seems to be for the sole purpose of expounding Mitchell’s views on Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that one disagrees with Ed’s views – indeed the section might have been a lot more interesting if one had – but that they would appear to have zero importance to or impact on the novel as it progresses. I initially believed that Mitchell was playing a long game, that he would be bound to link this realworld war in some ingenious way with the ‘secret history’ that is revealed two hundred pages later. As it turns out, no – Ed Brubeck is just the author having a go at Tony Blair. Not a bad thing in itself, but not relevant to the story either.

Which brings us to the crux of this novel, or its downfall, depending on your point of view. In ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’, part five of the novel and its longest section, we learn that Holly has been a pawn in a larger game all along, a centuries-long battle between two opposing groups of immortals, the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the soul-sucking baddies). It is these meddlesome demigods who variously ‘stole’ Holly’s brother, co-opted her lover to the dark side, helped her to find her missing daughter and plagued her with invisible voices from the age of seven. Now is the time of final reckoning, a fight to the death between the Blind Cathar and his Forces of Evil and our plucky band of Scoobies, outmanned in numbers but not in moral strength.

Where do we even start?? In his review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood stated the following:

As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant.

I earlier wrote a lengthy criticism of Wood’s essay, because it seemed and still seems to me that to equate ‘the human activity’ solely with the realist mode is to denigrate a mode of literature – the fantastic – whilst remaining ignorant of its capabilities. I stand by that assertion, and would go further in saying that Wood’s main purpose in this essay seems to lie in using The Bone Clocks as a proof of the inherent crapness of speculative fiction generally. I think he’s got it the wrong way round – one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.

It is the imbalance that is so embarrassing, the use of the kind of broad brush gestures and clichéd dialogue that would and should not be taken seriously in any literary context. Contrary to what Wood says in his review, the best speculative fiction works precisely because the writer sees no inherent difference, in fictional terms, between the quotidian realm and the fantastical, and approaches the writing of each – characterisation, sense of place, the use of language – with equal care and weight. In terms of a story’s seriousness, whether the ‘human case’ to be examined resides in a fictional Glasgow or a fictional Gormenghast should be of little importance. Mitchell himself clearly understands this – even if some of the science fiction in Cloud Atlas feels a little clunky, there can be no doubt that Mitchell fought hard for the soul of that book and won. The central SFnal sections feel as integral to the whole as the outer, realworld sections, and in formal as well as plot terms each thread of the story leads logically and elegantly from one to the next. In ambition and execution, Cloud Atlas as a novel project more than measures up to Mitchell’s formidable talent as a storyteller.

Why then is ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’ so rife with genre cliché – decades-old genre cliché at that? Why does Hugo Lamb, so brilliantly realised in part two, reappear speaking like a badly-written Bond villain in part five? Why does Holly suddenly start bellowing about FAHMLY in upper case? I sought desperately for some ironical, authorial awareness of just how ham-fisted this section is, but failed to find it. It felt like being trapped in a particularly dreadful episode of Doctor Who.

The sixth section, ‘Sheep’s Head’, is not much better. We’re into science fiction territory now, so of course everyone starts capitalising their nouns: Convoy, Cordon, Village. Then someone says: ‘There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling, I’ve met it before’ (p542), the Chinese are blamed for slaughtering the last elephant herds for the luxury goods market, and Holly wonders what it’s going to be like for her granddaughter Lorelei, being raped by born-again Christians and forced into servitude in some even-worse version of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s eventual denouement is so lazy and so – I hate to use the word of a writer like Mitchell – trite it barely merits discussion. One reader review I happened upon suggested that the Horologists are ciphers for writers, that the novel’s ending is a wishful rewriting of ‘the Script’. This could have been an interesting idea, but there is little evidence that this is what Mitchell intended, and if it is, then he has fumbled the execution so badly that it scarcely matters. Ian McEwan performed that trick better at the end of Atonement, and I say that as someone not keen on praising McEwan at the best of times.

I think the best word to describe my feelings about The Bone Clocks is baffled. Here we have six loosely linked novellas struggling to find a core narrative. Here we have a use of genre tropes so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy. What is Mitchell trying to tell us here, what was he trying to do? Was it simply that he struggled with this book for so long that it finally overmastered him? I can empathise with that situation, one-hundred percent. But no amount of fellow feeling, or admiration for the talent that still bursts suddenly and unexpectedly to life in parts of even this book, will prevent The Bone Clocks from being anything other than a baggy, directionless mess.

I fully expected to love The Bone Clocks. I thought this might be the year Mitchell won the Booker. I came away thinking that he’d have to pull something pretty special out of the bag to make me trust him again. Howard Jacobson’s J was another matter entirely. Jacobson is one of those writers whose flagrant self-regard seems so unwieldy it is almost comedic. I went into the book assuming I would hate it, that it would be both useless at being SF and so up itself as to be more or less unreadable. I was prepared for almost anything but what I actually found: a work that is unlike anything else I have ever read, a book that has nothing do to with science fiction but that is nonetheless fascinating in the way it approaches speculative materials, a novel that will remain with me long after the discussion of the current Booker Prize shortlist is over and no matter what the result.

J has been widely described as a dystopia, bearing comparison with classics of the subgenre such as 1984 and Brave New World. I personally think this is misleading, and anyone picking up J expecting a gory slice of police brutality and the perils of being a subversive in an authoritarian State with a capital S is going to find him or herself confounded almost immediately. No doubt there will be complaints in some quarters – indeed I’ve already encountered a few – that Jacobson shows no interest in what I would reluctantly describe as worldbuilding, in constructing a quid pro quo equivalent of a fully realised dystopian universe complete with depleted landscapes, alternate technologies and carefully delineated chart of alternate history. I would argue that Jacobson’s scattershot attempts at worldbuilding – there is a thing called a utility phone that will only accept local calls, the internet has been deconstructed or abolished, the names of places and people have been rearranged – are kept deliberately vague, because worldbuilding was the last thing on Jacobson’s mind (he has probably not even heard of the concept and would doubtless sneer at it if he had). Unlike other mainstream dabblers, Jacobson does not fail at science fiction, because he wasn’t trying to write science fiction in the first place. Where mainstream writers trying their hands at SF so often go wrong is in concentrating so hard on reconstructing what has already been done that they lose control of the central thrust of their idea – or else discover that they never had one (see above). The resulting texts often feel pallid, an emotional or intellectual void. Gutless. Once the second hand trappings of dystopia or post-apocalypse or whatever have been stripped away, there is nothing to see. Jacobson has provided us with something to see, a thought-experiment so effective and so original that there is only one way to read this book: forget SF, forget dystopia, forget any preconceived ideas you might have about Jacobson and read the book for what it is.

In steep contrast with The Bone Clocks, J is not an easy reading experience. I don’t just mean the content, I mean the style, which is terse, undramatic, frequently wordy, sometimes opaque. It is, as they say, hard to get into. But if there is a secret to reading J, it is not to try to get into it, but instead to let it get into you. Let it possess you. See what happens. Although evasion – not saying things, not clarifying, not noticing – forms the very fabric of J, the novel is not in the end evasive, and its central characters, though rendered elliptically in muted tones and without any of Mitchell’s gestural verismo, become insistent in their reality, terrifying in their vulnerability. They linger in the mind. In the very best sense of the word they are durable. For all Jacobson’s reticence in revealing her, Ailinn Solomons turns out to be just about a hundred times more convincing and important than Holly Sykes.

Another misconception about J is that it is ‘about’ the Nazi Holocaust. Although the fictional event at the centre of the novel – referred to throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED – concerns the massacre of Jews, Jacobson has said in interview that J is not about antisemitism or the Holocaust specifically:

The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.

To ‘write what he knows’ has been a sound decision for Jacobson, because the sense of quietly determined, indeed passionate personal investment that permeates this text allows it to be transformed all the more forcibly into the universal. In essence, J is about all othering – scapegoating, politicised hatred, the corruption of a whole society by the sense that there are ‘some people’ who it is all right to ostracise, blame, dispose of because they don’t really belong, who are ‘not like us’. What J does most effectively is to deprive us of the ‘just obeying orders’ defence, as put forward by concentration camp functionaries and SS officers at Nuremberg. J shows us a society sanctimoniously in mourning for itself, even while the cells of resurgent hatreds – hatreds that have never in fact gone away – bubble like septic sores just beneath the surface. The atmosphere of unease, of dread – especially in the more openly fantastical ‘Necropolis’ section of the book, which reads like a half-remembered nightmare – is palpable. The complacency of individuals – the bland smiles, the bland music – becomes ever more chilling as the book progresses. In the end you realise – as our protagonist has suspected all along – that you are standing on ground that looked solid, but that has been fatally undermined and is about to collapse:

‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny…to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels… Plus zealotry. Never forget zealotry, that torch to the easily inflamed passions of the benighted and the cultured alike. What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation. We have been lulled by the great autocrat-driven genocides of the recent past into thinking that nothing of that enormity of madness can ever happen again, not anywhere, least of all here. And it’s true – nothing on such a scale probably ever will. But lower down the order of horrors, and answering a far more modest ambition, carnage can still be connived at – lesser bloodbaths, minor murders, butchery of more modest proportions.’ (J p 292)

In his New Yorker review, James Wood argues that the fantasy element of The Bone Clocks is so overbearing it renders its human protagonists impotent – in fact the central issue with Mitchell’s novel is that the fantasy element is actually meaningless, a paper tiger, a bit of cheap decoration pinned on to a story that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to do. The novel wears its fantasy on its sleeve like a row of brass buttons polished to mirror brightness but does nothing with it. The Bone Clocks is easy and often enjoyable to read, but when you ask yourself what it is about, you are forced to conclude: not a lot. By contrast, J takes those elements of speculative fiction that make it so versatile and so important – the idea of disjuncture, of discomfiture, of imagining – and fashions from them something that is both remarkable in terms of its concept and vital in terms of what it is saying. The novel is meticulously crafted, a concentrated amalgam of thought and emotion that entirely repays the effort of getting to grips with it. It is a resolute book, a tough book. Is it valuable as literature? Yes. Should Jacobson feel proud of what he has achieved here? Certainly.

Wood for the trees

“Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more.The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

So argues critic James Wood, in his review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for The New Yorker.  I must begin by saying that I have not yet read The Bone Clocks, though my copy is on its way to me as I write, but I felt I had to say something about Wood’s piece, not so much because I feel he completely misunderstands what Mitchell is about (though this is true, and reading his review put me in mind of those Punt and Dennis sketches about the embarrassing dad) but because it reveals so much about the way he, together with most of the über-critics of today (John Mullan comes to mind) so regularly misunderstand and disparage not just science fiction and fantasy but any narrative mode that does not conform to their preconceived notions of how fiction has to behave in order to be considered serious. In this article alone, Wood points to ‘weightless fantasy’ and the ‘demented intricacies of science fiction’ as salient devaluing characteristics of Mitchell’s novel, and by extension all fiction by contemporary writers who employ speculative elements or alternative modes of narration as an integral part of their work:

“As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant.”

I felt embarrassed to read this, and sad, and angry.  Because even if you’d never come across any of Wood’s essays before, you’d know just from these few lines that he’s one of those critics who will happily ‘allow’ for the validity of speculative materials where the authors in question are safely dead, buried, and readily assimilable into the Oxbridge canon – Beowulf, Homer, Shelley, Bronte, Le Fanu, Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, Wyndham, Golding, Ballard and even up to and including the happily-still-living Susan Cooper – and yet who seem not just to misinterpret but actually to fear – the barbarians are at the gate! – contemporary innovations and experiments in genre, form and diversity among today’s writers. The only valid use of the fantastic in literature today, Wood argues, is in fiction aimed at children. (You might remember that Kate Saunders made a similar pronouncement in her patronising and sexist profile of Eleanor Catton for The Times last year.)

Wood cites Ford Madox Ford as the supreme ‘investigator of the human case’, and well he might. Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the novels that gets cited everywhere, both in newspaper features as one of those ‘100 books to read before you die’, and by other writers as the supreme example of ‘the perfect novel’, the kind of book you find yourself coming back to again and again. I wouldn’t argue with any of that. I first read The Good Soldier about three years ago – I missed it when I was at uni, and then found myself forever putting it off, plagued by that resistance one instinctively feels towards books that people are always telling you you ‘simply must’ read. When I finally got down to it I was hooked more or less immediately. The story on the surface is a predictable bit of soap opera – a tale of wife-swapping and moral degeneracy involving upper class types perambulating around Europe for the sake of their health – but Ford’s use of techniques that were then very new (a discursive, time-jumping narrative, a supremely unreliable narrator), the subversion of the novel’s restrained, nostalgic tone by the passion and violence of the events described, together with the perfectly crafted elegance of the writing itself make this novel something very special in terms of what it is (a modern novel), when it was written (on the eve of WW1) and what it represents (the shattering of an era and a worldview). Please note also, James Wood, that one of the chief pleasures of The Good Soldier is its almost addictive readability.  This was one of those rare novels (when you’re a writer they become increasingly rare) that I lost myself in to such an extent that I forgot all about the writer, and what he was doing, and how well he’d succeeded – I just wanted to know what happened, dammit.

So I’m not coming here to dis Ford, or his transatlantic literary inheritors Franzen and DeLillo and Eugenides and Yates. (There is no writer on this side of the Atlantic currently working who is as incisive and insightful in this particular sphere – Barnes and McEwan, for example, are parochial doodlers by comparison with the writers above, a fact that Wood as well as Ford might find ironic.) The novel, so long not-dead, is so perennial and so various and so inclusive that there will always be room and reason for novels like The Good Soldier and The Corrections. But to imply, as Wood does, firstly that good storytelling must come at the expense of ‘meaning’, and secondly that the very diversity of the novel today has detrimentally affected the pursuit of ‘the profoundly serious’, is to my mind both incorrect and dangerously limiting.

At one point in his review, Wood laments that David Mitchell’s previous novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ‘begins as a formidably achieved historical novel but gradually turns into something out of Japanese anime’. Once again, a cursory disparagement of a whole mode of storytelling (and I would be willing to bet that Wood knows even less about Japanese anime than he knows about science fiction) and a complete absence of interest in what Mitchell might actually be doing or saying with his employment of this kind of imagery and interweaving of styles. If Mitchell is capable of such ‘formidable achievement’ by Wood’s mark, surely his decision to subvert the recognisably realistic aspects of his narrative by the playing them off against more fantastical conceits comes down to more than literary naivete or unhappy accident? So much for serious investigation.

What is it about science fiction that so terrifies critics like Wood? The key, I think, lies in what he says here:

The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, in pleasingly familiar territory. We are in the provincial England of Black Swan Green—a world of possessive lower-middle-class parents, bad English cars, inventive slang, and terrific music.”

Wood is comfortable with these things, because he knows what’s going on. It is only when things ‘quickly get peculiar’ that he feels less certain of what is going on, and therefore less comfortable. Note the coupling of the adverb ‘pleasingly’ with the adjective ‘familiar’. For critics like Wood, it is always going to be that familiarity – that sense of being on home ground, and therefore at an advantage – that is pleasing, just as the sense of being plunged into the ‘peculiar’ – i.e any milieu that is not immediately assimilable by them – is disconcerting and therefore ‘weightless’.

It would appear that science fiction and the literature of the fantastic can leave some critics feeling as if they have been divested of their intellectual armoury. Unused to the terrain, they flounder – does she really mean this literally, or is it a metaphor??? Unused to being inexpert, they reject. For critics such as these, it is safer to reject the unaccustomed as not-serious, because they know serious, and this isn’t it. It is interesting to note that Wood is perfectly comfortable with the idea of creative speculation when it fits his own remit – he happily asserts, for example, that the fact that ‘[the protagonists’] freedom is itself fictional is an unimportant paradox, just part of the everyday novelistic contract’ – yet is contemptuously dismissive of ‘unreality’ when it is employed in the service of ideas he has not learned the vocabulary for, or by a writer he does not deem worthy of serious consideration.

Novel means new, and luckily for all those who love books, the novel today is still as new as the day it was born. Novelists who interest themselves in human affairs should and will continually seek out new ways of exploring, expressing, and yes, seriously investigating the diverse experiences of reality that exist. Is David Mitchell’s investigation in The Bone Clocks less worthy of attention than Martin Amis’s in his also-recently-published novel The Zone of Interest, simply because Mitchell’s iconography of evil is an imaginative construct, whereas in his use of the persons and symbols of Nazi Germany Amis has chosen to co-opt an iconography of evil that is already familiar to us? Amis takes less risk, certainly. (Whether his motives are more questionable is a matter that lies beyond the scope of this essay.) Similarly with the DVD box sets, graphic novels and RPGs that Wood so disparages. I cannot help feeling that Wood is rejecting these modes of discourse not because he has tried them and found them wanting, but because he believes they threaten the intrinsic seriousness of what is aesthetically worthy and allowable in his version of reality. Because they are unfamiliar, in other words. For Wood, aesthetic worth is mostly about shoring up a set of values he takes to be objective. In fact they are learned, a set of received opinions. Some of them may be good opinions, but if Wood is afraid to test them against other modes of expression, how will he know?

Almost exactly a century after the publication of The Good Soldier, we are living in a world Ford would barely recognise, a world both smaller and larger, more monolithic and more diverse. The anxieties we face are practical as well as internal. For writers wishing to interrogate those anxieties, it is vital and natural that we diversify our sources, our inspirations, and our ways of seeing. We may draw inspiration from Ford, not just because he wrote a great novel but because he was doing in his time what we should be doing in ours: pushing the boundaries. But as a profoundly serious investigation into the human case, it should be more or less impossible for a writer today to write a novel that examines the world in quite the same way that The Good Soldier does. Not, whatever Wood might think, because Ford’s level of technique is sadly lost to us barbarians, but because the world as Ford experienced it and thought about it is off-kilter in so many ways, wrong-headed, misinformed, gone. The kind of critic that bemoans the passing of such an aesthetic is all too often of the same stripe as those who used annually to complain about the increasing proliferation of novels by ‘un-English’ writers on the Booker shortlist.

The job of the writer should surely be more than the simple transcribing of what is already known. What we know is our raw material, to be warped, transported, alchemically altered into what we imagine. It is in the nature of science fiction above all to recognise that what we take for normality today could differ radically from might happen tomorrow, that even as we fumble towards it, reality eludes us. It is the most supple and adaptable of literatures and, it could be argued, there is none more perfectly suited to the serious investigation of the spaces – mental and physical, personal and public, inner and outer – we find ourselves inhabiting today.

In any case, there are more places to contemplate the world from than through a Harvard window.

Launching The Race

Just to let everyone know that The Race will be launched at LonCon on Friday August 15th at 16.30 as part of the NewCon Press launch event. We will also be celebrating the release of Adam Roberts’s collection of essays and non-fiction Sibilant Fricative, the completely revised and expanded new edition of Chris Beckett’s first novel Marcher, and the brand new NewCon anthology Paradox.

I’ll also be reading an extract from The Race earlier the same day at 11.30, so if you can’t make the launch, do come along to the reading and say hello.

Meanwhile, the very first review of The Race has just gone live at Rising Shadow:

“The Race is a beautifully written, complex and absorbing debut novel that deserves to be read and praised. It’s an exceptionally compelling and original speculative fiction novel that will resonate among readers who enjoy reading literary speculative fiction and quality novels.”

Which is good to hear.

Strange Horizons fund drive

Just a quick call-out to remind everyone that the Strange Horizons annual fund drive is currently underway and every pound/dollar counts!

It’s no secret that I consider SH to be one of the most important and progressive speculative fiction zines out there. I’m proud to write for it, always eager to read the latest issue, and would encourage anyone who feels they can to support the magazine’s continued existence by making a donation.

SH’s strength as a zine lies in the spread of knowledge, diversity of opinion and passionate commitment of its contributors. Everyone who writes for the magazine, whether as a reviewer or as a columnist or as a fiction writer (sometimes all three) does so out of a desire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about speculative fiction, to proselytise, to criticise, to empathise – and sometimes all three. Strange Horizons is not your passive, stay-at-home kind of zine. Above all, and in whatever guise, there is active engagement.

With every week bringing some new highlight, it’s difficult and unfair to pick favourites. But for anyone new to Strange Horizons and looking to find examples of just why it’s so special, I’d urge them to have a read of Abigail Nussbaum’s recent review of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Abigail offers a fine deconstruction of the text (she’s one of the best) but she doesn’t stop there. Her examination in this article of what exactly fantastic fiction is for and how far it can hope to succeed in literary terms is an articulate and incisive contribution to what should be the most important argument in SF today. I admired and loved this piece when I first read it, and it has stayed with me. I hope to return to some of the points it raises on this blog in due course.

Every instalment of John Clute’s Scores column is a privilege to read, and I sincerely hope fantastika knows how lucky it is to have him. I don’t mind what Clute writes about – I just love wallowing in his mastery of the English language. His dissection of the Great American Horror novel, and Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere in particular, has been a recent favourite.

And for SH fiction, I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone to seek out what must be among my favourite short stories of 2013, Sofia Samatar’s ‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’, published in Strange Horizons way back in January. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now. If you read it at the time, reread it. Stories published in the first quarter of any given year often lose out when it comes to awards nominations, simply because it can be difficult to remember which year they appeared in and whether they are eligible. Sofia’s story is eligible for all next year’s ballots, and if I had my way it would appear on every single one of them! It’s beautifully written, perfectly structured, witty, sardonic, gorgeous – and I totally loved it.

Nina’s Crime Blog #2

Generation Loss, by Elizabeth Hand (2007)

(Those who read Crime Blog #1 will know I was intending Richard House’s The Kills to be my next excursion into the genre. I was just getting into it when we went to Spain – and anyone who’s seen the book in the flesh, so to speak, will understand why it wasn’t really practical to take it with me. So I took Generation Loss instead – much more acceptable in terms of the EasyJet baggage allowance. But fans of House fear not, The Kills will be featuring at this blog in due course.)

I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth Hand for quite some time now. I admire her writing greatly. I also sympathise with her preoccupations, which might loosely be described as the materials of obsession. Her characters are often loners, people who have become disaffected with society, who have fallen out with friends and lovers, who for one or other reason find themselves treading an unkempt path, often of their own making.  Above all, Hand is interested in art and artists, but where some might portray art as a curative, for Hand’s protagonists it is more likely to be a purgative, an expression of the rage that is at least a part of their personal predicament.

One of the other things I love about Hand’s writing is her particular approach to the fantastic. Her touch here is always subtle – a leaching away of normality rather than a full-throated plunge into the surreal – and at least a measure of what we take as ‘unreal’ in her stories comes down to the skewed viewpoints and preternatural talents of her characters. Hand’s place in the canon of the fantastic is deservedly secure, and well recognised, which is why it came as something of a surprise to me that Generation Loss was being marketed as crime, pure and simple, with no fantastical element.

I was eager to find out what Hand might do with reality in the raw.

Generation Loss introduces us to Cassandra Neary, famous for fifteen minutes in her early twenties as a precociously gifted photographer whose images of the New York punk scene both shocked and enthralled a public hungry for sensation. Now in her forties, Cass is a burnt out case. Working as a bookstore clerk and still determinedly hooked on addictive substances, she has neither the wish nor the stamina to restart her career. When a former associate offers her the chance to interview Aphrodite Kamestos, a once iconic photographer who is now a bitter recluse living on a desolate island off the coast of Maine, Cass says no. What changes her mind is not the generous paycheque on offer, but the thought of meeting Kamestos, whose groundbreaking work was Cass’s own core inspiration. But there are secrets buried on Paswegas, and Cass’s intrusion into the lives of the islanders will have deadly consequences.

So far as the writing is concerned, all Hand’s trademarks are here in force. The New York scenes are beautifully handled, but it is in the passages about the landscape of Maine that Hand truly shines. The sense of place evoked in this novel is a considerable achievement. Fans of Stephen King will inevitably be reminded of the bleakly closeted island ambience of Dolores Claibourne and ‘The Reach’ and even Storm of the Century. But Hand adds an extra edge of lyricism, a keenly sympathetic insight into the lives of the islanders and their understandable resentment of those ‘from away’. The beauty and the bleakness of Paswegas are given equal weight, and the small but compelling cast of characters come vividly alive on every page. I’ve held a longstanding ambtion to visit Maine, and Generation Loss reinforced it, big style.

An island community is the perfect setting for a crime story. All those buried emnities, coupled with the fact that you already have all your suspects conveniently gathered together in one place, gives the crime writer a ready and fascinating alternative to the cliche of the country house, and it’s no surprise to see a writer of Hand’s calibre manipulating these very elements with panache and skill.

With so much about this novel to admire, I was all the more disappointed that the book as a whole did not work for me.  From about the midway point it became uncomfortably clear that there were two stories in this novel, one subtle and resonant and deserving of closer scrutiny, the other cliched and unbelievable and demanding a Hollywood production company. I kept wishing it would bugger off and let me read more about Maine, and Cass, and photography. Unfortunately it monstered in and ate everything, leaving nothing in its wake but the sense that Generation Loss is yet another particularly tragic (because the writing is so effortlessly lovely) example of why thrillers are usually unsatisfactory as literature.

The true story of Generation Loss has nothing to do with Denny Ahearn. The true story of Generation Loss is the story of Cass and Aphrodite, Cass’s burnout, Aphrodite’s jealousy of her youth and talent, the conversation they should have had about that – and would have done, surely, had the ten-a-penny thriller plot not been allowed to become the driving force behind the action. Hand does her best to justify and give depth to what happens, but these efforts failed for me, because she had already killed off the most interesting character in the book, and because I never gave a damn about Denny, who is never a character so much as a necessary plot device:

Monstrous as he was, Denny was the real thing. So was his work. He really had built a bridge between the worlds, even if no one had ever truly seen it, besides the two of us. (p 317)

No he hadn’t – what Denny built was a freak room, the same as you see at the end of Silence of the Lambs and just about every serial killer thriller from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Shining Girls, the hidden chamber of memento mori that has become de rigeur in such dramas not through any real sense of story or narrative tension (these were killed off after about the twentieth time this tired old trope was employed) but because of the cod symbolism that passes for explanation of motive, and because those scenes, often played out in the half-dark, always look great on camera.

I finished Generation Loss deeply regretting the novel it should have been. That is, not a novel of generic crime fiction, but a novel about the corrosive nature of ambition and the damage it does to relationships, with other people and with the world. It’s unfair of me to twist someone else’s book to my own agenda, I know, especially as it’s precisely the very high quality of Hand’s writing that allows me to forget about the language and to focus instead on what I perceive as the novel’s problems.

But what I take away most of all from this book, apart from my continuing admiration for Hand’s talent and leading on directly from what I was saying in an earlier post about the inherent conservatism of the publishing world, is a feeling of concern. Concern about the commercial pressures brought to bear upon writers to produce stories that can be easily assimilated, stories, in other words, that we’ve all heard before.

Last night, Chris and I caught up with a movie we wanted to see but missed earlier in the year, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The movie begins with Luke, a stunt motorcyclist (played by Ryan Gosling) who more or less accidentally discovers that he is a father. Wishing to play an active role in his baby son’s life, he throws over the itinerant carnival existence he has been leading and turns to bank robbery as a misguided way of making money to support his new family. We as audience know from the first that this is bound to end badly, and as we watch Luke speeding towards a police roadblock we believe we know everything there is to know about what comes next. We’ve seen so many other films like this, after all. Only as it turns out, we haven’t. The Place Beyond the Pines is as far from the by-the-numbers three-act Hollywood cop drama as it is possible to get. What we are offered instead is an original and arresting piece of work, beautifully scripted, powerfully acted and never afraid to be true to its own unique story. The plot, although it appears discursive, is actually masterfully structured – and solid gold proof that good stories are not rooted in formula, but in character, and landscape, and authentic mystery.

Could you call this film a crime drama? Yes, certainly. But more than that it is just a story about those people, full of surprises right up until the final frame, and so affecting and full of poetry that talking it over the following morning still brought tears to my eyes.

If stories like this prove anything, it’s that as writers we should have the courage to tell the stories we want to tell in the way we choose to tell them. Those are the kind of stories that catch fire.