Category Archives: Women in SF

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#weird2016: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

death and the seaside mooreI didn’t plan it that way, but Alison Moore’s new novel seemed like an excellent choice of reading matter for my own trip to the seaside – visiting my mother down in Cornwall last week – and so it proved. Sarah Crown has written an insightful review for The Guardian in which she examines the significance of the novel’s title and its relationship to Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, so I don’t need to repeat that parallel here. What I most definitely do want to repeat though is my previously expressed conviction that Alison Moore is one of the most gifted and interesting writers of weird fiction in Britain today.

Bonnie Falls has just turned thirty. After having abandoned her university degree, her life seems to have stumbled into something of a dead end. Until recently she has been living with her parents, but after they insist on her leaving home she finds herself working two cleaning jobs to pay the rent on a dingy ground floor flat that still seems locked inside the lives of its previous occupants. Into this stasis walks Sylvia Slythe, who owns the building Bonnie lives in and who seems uncommonly determined to take an interest in the wellbeing of her new tenant. When Sylvia learns that Bonnie once entertained ambitions of being a writer, she demands to see Bonnie’s manuscripts. When Bonnie proves reluctant to share them she steals them instead. What exactly is going on here? How does Sylvia happen to know Bonnie’s mother? The answers to these questions – like the set-up itself – are weird. There is an atmosphere of threat around Bonnie that is made all the more discomfiting by the fact that Bonnie herself seems utterly impervious to it.

What I noticed immediately about Death and the Seaside is its clear and direct relationship to Moore’s 2015 work ‘The Harvestman’, a short story published as a standalone chapbook by Nightjar Press. It is not that Death and the Seaside is an expanded version of ‘The Harvestman’, exactly – more that it spins off from it at a tangent, a happenstance I can understand perfectly as so many of my own works have bought their freedom in this self same manner. I enjoy both ‘The Harvestman’ and Death and the Seaside all the more because of it, this interlinking, this cousinage, which makes their universe feel bigger and deeper and more alive.

Like Anita Brookner’s heroines, you might assume that Bonnie would come across as pathetic. She does not. There truly is something heroic about her, something tenacious and completely grounded in the way she refuses to be defined by others’ assumptions. She’s living her life, puzzling things out – why the hell should she be the character that others imagine she is? There were passages in this book where Bonnie’s situation became so uncomfortable to read about that I found myself hurriedly flipping pages, just to make sure that – but no, that would be too spoilery. Let’s just say that even when she seems most in peril, Bonnie’s doggedness, her pragmatism in the face of danger seems to get her out of trouble every time. I really liked her, which is perhaps why for me at least the pay-off of Death and the Seaside was one of the most satisfying of the year so far.

And it is this Bonnie-like pragmatism that best characterises Alison Moore’s fiction as a whole. I’ve read all three of Moore’s novels to date, plus a good number of her short stories, and in all of them I find this unifying feeling of unspecified threat. Not ghosts exactly, nothing so concrete, so predictable – yet ghosts nonetheless, the ghosts we create ourselves, simply by living our lives, by having pasts and making mistakes and feeling regret.

Moore’s landscapes – her insistence on lived, inhabited reality – are achingly familiar: seventies housing estates, seaside promenades, motorway service stations, bits of waste ground in permanent danger of being tarmacked over. They are made strange by the heightened perceptions of her protagonists, and by the intimate personal knowledge of these same landscapes, these situations that we ourselves bring into the narrative by the act of reading it.

I’ve been thinking of Anita Brookner a lot recently – about how important her novels were to me when I first encountered them in my twenties, about how timeless they are, how defiant the vision, how exquisite the writing. Much of the modern fiction that seeks to inhabit a similar milieu seems clumsy and obvious and disingenuous by comparison. Less honest, more apologetic. Not so Moore’s. In many ways, Alison Moore might be counted as Anita Brookner’s natural heir, exploring many of the same concerns – Prufrockism, unfulfilled ambition, the conundrum of living alone – but with an extra edge of darkness, of horror that makes her fiction entirely of today, and of the weird.

Westcountry Weird at Waterstones Exeter

Next Thursday, August 11th, I will be joined by Catriona Ward and Aliya Whiteley in a discussion of weird fiction in the West Country. The conversation will be led by George Sandison, editor-in-chief at Unsung Stories.

All four of us have strong links to the West Country, and will be sharing our thoughts on why it is that this corner of the British Isles has exercised such a strong inspirational effect upon our writing. We will also be discussing war, climate change, the increasing importance of women in speculative fiction, and the rise of weird fiction generally in these unsettled times.

We’ll be answering audience questions, and of course there’ll be a chance to buy our books and have them signed. It would be wonderful to see you, so please, if you’re in the Exeter area, come along next Thursday evening and say hello.

The event begins at 18.30 pm at Waterstones Exeter (High Street branch). Tickets are £3. They can be purchased direct from Waterstones, reserved online or bought on the door on the night. Please visit the Waterstones site for more details.

rawblood.wardCATRIONA WARD Anyone who visits this site regularly or reads my reviews over at Strange Horizons will already know how much I admired Catriona Ward’s stunning debut Rawblood, a modern reincarnation of the gothic novel set on the wilder fringes of Dartmoor and currently shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award. The novel still sings in my imagination as a prime example of the weird fiction resurgence. I can’t wait to hear the author talking in person about this magnificent book, and hopefully we’ll learn a little more about her work in progress, too. Ward is a stunning writer, and I would urge anyone in the area to grab this chance to hear her speak.

ALIYA WHITELEY I firmly believe that Aliya Whiteley is one of the most original, missives.aliya.whiteleyinnovative and intelligent writers of speculative fiction working in Britain today. Her superb 2014 novella The Beauty – a powerful blend of literary horror and near-future science fiction – was shortlisted for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award, among others, and If anything her newest work The Arrival of Missives, published earlier this summer by Unsung Stories (and currently on the longlist for The Guardian’s annual Not the Booker Prize – vote here!) is even better. Set in the immediate aftermath of WW1, Missives is British weird at its best, as well as being a moving examination of human relationships, and a powerful evocation of the landscape of West Somerset. That Missives is also a strongly feminist work, with much to say about the position of women in society then and now, is just more excellent grist to its mill. Don’t miss the chance to hear Aliya speaking in detail about her work and her sources of inspiration, and of course to secure your copy of The Arrival of Missives and have it signed.

the race cover (2)The new Titan edition of The Race will also be on sale, so come along and have one of those signed, too.

It should be a fascinating discussion. Hope you can make it!

#weird2016: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

furnace.llSomewhere in the real world, the merchant bolts the second choice to her flesh, using living metals that flicker as they vibrate between one dimension and the next. The pain lightning-strikes its way up her torso, and the roots of the metal object follow like rivers of mercury, burrowing into her brain. He is welding her to a darker universe. When he is finished, he says, her body will be a pipeline to hell. 

He’s not opening a gate, Wasp thinks as she grimaces and howls. He’s just widening the road. (‘Wasp and Snake’)

This short extract from ‘Wasp and Snake’ exemplifies everything that is both excellent and disappointing in Llewellyn’s second collection, all the ways in which it has proved – for this reader at least – inferior to her first. ‘Wasp and Snake’ opens brilliantly. A woman strikes a devil’s bargain with some kind of hellish engineer of body and soul – shades of Clive Barker’s Cenobites – and sallies forth on an equally devilish mercenary mission: to assassinate a named target and claim her reward. The language involved in telling this story is as gorgeously rich and decadent as anything we previously encountered in Llewellyn’s debut, Engines of Desire. The story, though, proves a bit of a let-down: the denouement too simple and too pat for its elaborate and compelling set-up. We find ourselves wishing it had been more complicated, that the characters had been given a broader stage to act upon. Our disappointment is especially acute given our suspicion that, had ‘Wasp and Snake’ belonged to the era of Engines of Desire, they would have been.

I unequivocally loved Engines of Desire. I admired Llewellyn’s considerable ability with language, her obvious love for the horror genre, her willingness to take risks in bending it to her will. I found ‘Horses’ to be one of the most genuinely upsetting pieces of short fiction I’d ever read, Her Deepness to be a profound reordering of Lovecraftian tropes into a feminist Mythos, stories like ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Omphalos’ brilliant in their perplexing ambiguities.

Llewellyn is a gift to horror, a writer of seriously exceptional abilities. As such, her second collection Furnace was one of my most-anticipated books of 2016. How sad I was to discover that, in spite of some glorious writing at the sentence level, Furnace is a collection defined above all by a quality of sameness, of reiteration, by stories that feel less driven by the unpredictable internal impulses of the writer and more produced in response to the external demands of a horror market hungry for a repetition of earlier success.

There comes a point in the career of every promising new horror writer when they begin to receive more anthology invites than they can possibly fulfil. The thrill of having editors ask you for work is undeniable, but the truth is you have to learn to say no, at least sometimes. If you do not say no, then you will see more personal projects placed on the back burner as you find yourself subject to a forever advancing accumulation of story deadlines, your subject matter and direction increasingly moulded by the arbitrary dictates of themed anthologies. Rather than pushing yourself to try new things, you’ll be desperately seeking out yet another variation on the Lovecraft story, the zombie story, the alien invasion story.

It is a treadmill I suspect few on the consuming end of such anthologies ever guess at. But it exists. Thus the collections that eventually appear formed from stories produced primarily for themed anthologies have the rag-bag feel of compilations rather than studio albums. If you’re a Spotify kind of person this might not matter to you. If you are someone who regularly buys CDs and listens to albums in track order, it matters a great deal.

The quality of the writing in Furnace is unerringly consistent and usually very high. And – don’t get me wrong – the collection does contain some standout stories. The action of ‘Cinereous’, for example, takes place in Paris in the year 1799, and tells the story of one Olympe Leon, a young woman who, through her assistance at the site of some brutal and bizarre experiments, hopes to secure her fame as a pioneer in the field of human biology. It’s a brilliant conceit, so disturbing one is forced to look away at certain points (surely the highest compliment for a horror writer) and one would never guess at its origins in an anthology of zombie stories. Similarly ‘Yours is the Right to Begin’ might be described as an ardent love poem to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whilst at the same time augmenting and even transcending its source material. Both ‘Allocthon’ and ‘Furnace’ showcase themes of corrupted, static, male-dominated societies and women’s discontent and horror at their position within them. ‘Allocthon’ in particular reads like a horrific car crash between Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The Ligottian claustrophobia of ‘Furnace’ highlights the tensions between mother and daughter, a theme enlarged upon in ‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’, although this latter is a less original story, too clear a reiteration perhaps of Llewellyn’s earlier story ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’. As a portrait of suburbia gone to the devil, ‘It Feels Better Biting Down’ is more surreal and more original.

But while I loved ‘Panopticon’ for the glimpse it afforded of Llewellyn’s Lovecraftian megalopolis Obsidia, I found ‘Lord of the Hunt’ and ‘In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982’ – Llewellyn’s language aside – to be pretty run of the mill Mythos variants. ‘Wasp and Snake’, as mentioned previously, is ended before it’s properly begun. whilst ‘The Unattainable’, although it does bring a feminist twist to the traditionally male-dominated cowboy story, is otherwise a fairly pointless piece of mild erotica. Least successful of all is ‘Stabilimentum’ – a tale of urban alienation that takes so little account of actual spider behaviour that it was never going to win many brownie points with me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories, and anyone coming to Livia Llewellyn – or indeed horror literature – for the first time will no doubt find plenty to entertain and freak them out. Speaking for myself though, I missed the longer, more obviously personal stories that so brilliantly characterised Llewellyn’s first collection, and while her writing is clearly in rude – in every sense of the word – health, I for one am hoping that her next outing will provide a deeper and more complex statement of her future intent.

A conversation with Anne Charnock

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I’ve enjoyed and admired Anne Charnock’s first two novels, the Philip K. Dick Award- and Kitschies-shortlisted A Calculated Life, and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which was published towards the end of last year. I found A Calculated Life to be one of the most fascinating and imaginative explorations of the post-human condition that I’ve yet read, and in Sleeping Embers especially, with its interwoven narrative threads and themes of art and memory, I sensed that Anne and I shared some common interests as writers. I was therefore delighted when Anne invited me to take part in an online ‘conversation’, the aim being to examine and hopefully illuminate some hidden aspects of what we write, and how we approach our chosen subject matter. Neither an interview nor a traditional Q&A, the conversation format allowed for a more free-flowing discussion, more approximate to what you might expect in a live panel event. As we both hoped at the outset, it threw up some unexpected insights. That it was a great pleasure to ‘talk’ to Anne should go without saying.

ANNE: Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and although he gives greatACharnockPortrait copy [458685] advice throughout, I was curious about one of his comments on the subject of theme. He feels that the theme of a novel is something that emerges in the first draft or after the first draft, and can then be enhanced in subsequent reworking. But for me the theme, or concept, comes first, before I start outlining and plotting a piece of fiction. How do you view the importance of theme? Does it vary from one writing project to another?

NINA: I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it several times, just for the pleasure of King’s voice, and it’s the one book I recommend unequivocally when people ask me if ‘how to’ guides for writers are any good. As a new writer, what On Writing offered me, most of all, was the permission to do things my way. Many of the writing guides I’d read previously – and yes, I did love reading them – seemed very keen on pre-planning, on writing chapter summaries and on knowing exactly what was going to happen before you started. This made me feel nervous because I instinctively felt that those methods weren’t going to work for me. What King seemed to be saying was ‘screw that – there are no rules. Do what feels right’. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I don’t remember King’s exact words on theme versus plot – but what I do know is that for me, plot has always been the element of narrative I try to think about least consciously, particularly when I’m making a start on a new piece of work. I’ve always started with character – or to put it more precisely, with a particular character in a particular situation. I name my character – character names are very important to me as they seem to form a nest of associations all by themselves – and I think about what might be worrying them, what problems they face, how they might react, who they might know. Theme tends to arise naturally from these thoughts, and from the situation. Theme is important to me, as an anchor – as the box everything fits inside, if you like. Plot is something I have to trust will attach itself to the theme as I go along. The more I write the more the plot begins to define itself. Often I won’t know how a story is going to work itself out until I’m at least half way through. But this is why second drafts are so important to my working process. When I start my second draft, I begin writing the book again from the beginning, essentially – only this time I know where it’s going, I know what the plot entails, I know how things end. Which means I can foreground certain details, strengthen certain narrative threads. I love second drafts! They are so much less scary.

How about your drafting process? Do you like to edit on the page, refining the narrative organically as you progress, or do you write right to the end and then second-draft everything from the beginning?

ANNE: Like you, Nina, I let the narrative unfold during the drafting process. This feels more natural to me. And because I ‘feel my way’ with the narrative, I now find I’m attracted to writing in present tense, as though I’m experiencing events alongside my characters. I edit at a sentence level as I go along—which can be very slow! However, this does mean that when I reach the end of the manuscript I don’t need to redraft from the beginning. I might add a scene or move a scene. But I’m mainly fine-tuning the characters and dialogue, making ‘fixes’ to the narrative, looking for inconsistencies, fact-checking and so on.

anne.charnock.embers

Throughout the drafting, I fill in a spreadsheet that summarises the narrative developments in each chapter. Sometimes the narrative develops in such a way that I know I’ll need to make adjustments in earlier chapters. I add notes on the spreadsheet to remind myself to make specific changes in the next draft. And I do enjoy this process of refinement.

In my current writing project, I’ve taken a different approach. I’m first-drafting this novel with less on-the-go editing. I’m conscious of my deadline with this project so I feel more comfortable pushing forward. I’m still keeping a spreadsheet of the narrative development, and this is really important because this novel has a highly fragmented structure. I expect I’ll write additional fragments when I’ve finished the first full draft. With each of my main characters in this novel, I’m interested in the specific events in his or her back-story that has moulded their character: nurture over nature, I suppose.

I know from your own writing, Nina, that you’re interested in fragmentation. I’d like to know what draws you to this type of structure.

the race cover (2)NINA: It’s going to be interesting for you to see how the quicker-first-draft method suits you! I imagine your spreadsheets to be a little like Nabokov’s famous index cards – a way of examining characters and events in isolation from their story. A fascinating approach.

I first encountered fragmented narratives through the work of Keith Roberts and his great novel Pavane, also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. This would have been in my mid-teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction pretty indiscriminately. Most of the stuff I read then – Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, Pohl – has fallen by the wayside for me, but both Pavane and Roadside Picnic, and their authors, remain touchstone influences. Thinking about them now, I realise that when I first read these novels I didn’t think of them as ‘fragmented narratives’, I simply accepted this method of telling a story as something that was natural and intrinsic to those books, and got on with enjoying them. And yet they made a powerful impact – something about the thrill of discovery, the way my own imagination played a vital role in linking everything together. I wouldn’t have analysed it that way at the time, but I think I found something very satisfying in the idea of the reader interacting with the writer to create a complete picture.

Fragmented narratives are often described as being complex, and of course they can be, but I happen to believe that large numbers of readers actively enjoy the element of mental participation this approach encourages. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven have found immense popular appeal. Similarly, movies such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro Inarritu’s Babel, which both involve intricately interlinking storylines, have enjoyed Oscar-winning success. I think readers can actually tolerate narrative complexity to a far greater degree than the publishing industry sometimes gives them credit for. One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because readers feel directly involved with what’s happening on the page, and I think the clue-hunting aspect of fragmented narratives performs this same function.

I loved the three-stranded structure you used in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Did the experience gained in writing this novel help you in planning this next book? You say the structure of this new novel is ‘highly fragmented’ – can you tell me how it differs from the construction of Sleeping Embers?

ANNE: Thanks, Nina. I like the comparison you make with crime fiction! I do have fun introducing clues and connections when I’m drafting a fragmented novel. I’ve always liked writers who play around with structure. So the novels that come to mind are Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, Louisa Hall’s Speak. When I start to list them—and I could list so many more—I begin to see how popular this form is among writers.

My work-in-progress already has a title—Dreams Before the Start of Time. I started drafting this novel some time ago, but I broke off to begin Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. So the influence happened in reverse; the fragmented structure of Dreams Before encouraged me to tackle Sleeping Embers as a novel set in three time periods—Renaissance, current day and twenty-second century—with the narrative oscillating between the three settings.

In contrast, Dreams Before the Start of Time is linear, moving forward from the very near future to a hundred years from now, and it follows the lives of two women who are close friends. A handful of chapters are written from their points of view, but most are told from the points of view of characters who are connected either closely or tangentially to the two women.

I don’t regard this new novel as a sequel, but one of my main characters is Toni Monroe who is a character in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. I still felt a strong connection to Toni, and her age fitted neatly with the setting of my new novel. This brings me on to say that one of my quests in writing speculative fiction is to create characters who engage the reader on an emotional level. I don’t want the reader to envisage the future in a detached way. For me, an exemplar novel—one that’s compelling in an emotional sense—is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I wondered if you could identify your own writing quest, and if there’s a single novel that would indicate your goal.

NINA: I love the sound of Dreams Before the Start of Time, and especially the idea of Toni as a continuing character. You mention David Mitchell here – a writer who is now well known for extending the life of his characters beyond the frame of a single novel – and indeed this is something I enjoy doing myself. I first experimented with recurring characters in my story cycle The Silver Wind, where the same characters crop up time and again, although not always in the same roles. (Stephen King has a lot of fun with a similar idea in his twinned novels Desperation and The Regulators, which are favourites for me amongst his work.) I’m currently working on a story that features a character from my first collection, A Thread of Truth, a character I hope to write about at greater length in a future novel.IMG_0056

As you say, it’s difficult to let go of these people sometimes!

Never Let Me Go is a fascinating choice for your ‘quest’ novel – humane and chilling and very much in the tradition of British speculative fiction – I’m thinking of novels like D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a key novel of the SF New Wave which examines anxieties about future technological development through a very human lens.

I do like this idea of having a writing quest! I suppose if I had to pin down what it is that I’m going after with my writing, it would be the preservation of memories, of moments in time, and how memory is always this peculiar and sometimes problematic blend of objective ‘truth’ and subjective worldview, which is by its nature partial, and often unreliable. I am in love with the weirdness at the heart of mimesis, and the writer who encapsulates this in her writing most perfectly of all for me is Iris Murdoch. There is something exalted about her work, a sense of heightened reality that shines a light on ordinary objects and occurrences and reveals their hidden magic – and madness. If I had to choose one of her novels to take with me to a desert island it would be The Book and the Brotherhood, which I’ve read four times already and could start reading again tomorrow with equal enjoyment.

I would pair that novel with works like The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and The Girl in the Swing by Richard Adams as examples of British Weird, a tradition that I feel is central to my own practice and allegiance. Do you think of yourself as being a particularly British writer? Or do you see yourself as having more in common with the new internationalism that is beginning to characterise contemporary science fiction?

ANNE: I suppose I do think of myself as a British writer. My speculative fiction fits pretty neatly with your comment on SF New Wave. But I’m not so keen on pinning these things down—I don’t wish to feel any obligation to carrying on doing what I’ve done before, if you see what I mean.

charnock calculated lifeI’m pleased you mention Iris Murdoch. I’m also a fan of Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels including The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World. These are disorientating and distressing reads, almost fantastical, because as the narratives unfold you don’t know what or who to believe. It’s rather like the slipperiness of memory that you refer to. I feel these two novels anticipated Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin. We can’t seem to nail the truth in these novels.

So, you’ve chosen your books for the desert island! I played this game at my local book group’s Christmas party. I chose Michael Cunningham’s short novel, The Hours. I do regard this novel as a perfect example of a fragmented structure, linked as it is to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (I’d need to take her novel too!). I’d spend my time on the desert island working out all the connections between the two novels, and lapping up Cunningham’s beautiful writing style.

I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work in progress, but can you tell me about the novel you’ve recently completed, and any other fiction in the pipeline?

NINA: That’s an interesting point you make about the way Doris Lessing’s ‘Ben’ novels anticipate Shriver’s Kevin and I agree absolutely. An aspect of Lessing’s career that is not discussed anywhere near enough either within the mainstream or in genre circles is her lifelong fascination with speculative ideas. There are the two novels you mention, which as you say teeter on the brink of the fantastic, her Shikasta series, Briefing for a Descent into HellThe Memoirs of a Survivor (both of which are briefly discussed in my own novel The Race) and also later works such as The Cleftand Mara and Dan. I’ve noticed an unwillingness within genre communities to admit the importance of writers like Lessing and of course Margaret Atwood, to dismiss them as dabblers or ‘tourists’, an attitude which is frankly ridiculous when it could be argued that half of Lessing’s output is speculative, when Atwood has not only produced a novel – The Handmaid’s Tale – which will stand as one of the core works of the SF genre for decades to come, but has also, with the Maddadam trilogy and now The Heart Goes Last, dedicated the whole of the past decade more or less exclusively to writing science fiction. I could speculate for a long time upon the reasons for this kind of inverse genre snobbery, but suffice it to say that I think it needs to stop! Science fiction has much to draw from the mainstream in terms of depth and craft, just as mimetic literature is finding itself reinvigorated by speculative ideas – ideas a lot of mainstream writers wouldn’t have been seen dead trying out even two decades ago. Literature is reactive as well as proactive. As writers, we see something someone else is doing and immediately begin to consider how we might bring something like it into our own work. We’re magpies! Reading widely – and letting that reading have its way with us – is a large part of how we learn to advance as writers.

My second novel is called The Rift. It began as an alien abduction story, or something like that, but morphed into something different as I was writing. It’s the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie, who owing to unexplained circumstances have not seen one another for twenty years. When Julie unexpectedly returns, Selena is left feeling that the life she has lived since Julie’s disappearance has been a lie. It’s a novel about memory, and loss, but there is some weird alien stuff in there, too. The Rift is scheduled for publication in summer 2017. I’m currently in the early stages of thinking about my next book, which at the moment mainly consists of a file full of notes and a long list of books I need to read. I am, however, cautiously excited…

ANNE: On the subject of magpies, I agree! We advance by reading widely, and reacting to other writers’ work. Appropriation is a minor theme in Sleeping Embers—how all the arts are enriched and energized by revisiting the past, by borrowing from other art forms, and using other artists’ work as a springboard.

*

Well, Anne and I both agreed that this could have run and run, but we had to bring it to a close somewhere! For those of you planning to be at Eastercon, you can catch Anne in conversation for real on the Sunday at 4pm, this time with Matt Hill. They’ll be discussing the influence of Manchester on their writing, among many other things I’m sure. It’s bound to be a fascinating discussion. In the meantime, you can visit Anne’s blog here, and of course read her books!

#weird 2016: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus,cvwatkins“I’ll fix it, I will. We’ll get the birth certificate, a clean ID. I’ll take care of everything.” That was what he’d been telling Ig, that he was going to get his shit together, that he’d be on top of every damn thing from here on out. Also how quickly one’s beliefs and values and principles and philosophies – all the biggies – could be reduced to a matter of paperwork. (p 60)

I began reading Gold Fame Citrus in the midst of a monster gale, Storm Imogen. We’re high up where we are, and the winds were strong enough to snap the arm off a nearby wind turbine. I wonder now if it was this – the sense of a landscape under assault, the sense that the weather could fly off into new normals, any time it wanted – that made me begin to change my attitude towards Watkins’s first novel.

I started out hating it – an ex-model named Luz trying on a mink coat in the blistering California heat while her ex-soldier boyfriend goes about the serious business of finding water – and wondering what on Earth Watkins could have been thinking, wanting to create a character like that – so lax, so ineffectual, so preoccupied with men’s desires – when she could have written Luz any way she chose.

Now I think I get it. She wrote Luz and Ray and their adopted daughter Ig because these are the people – the totally random people – her attention happened to fall upon. They could have been anyone – a grandmother with a career in the military behind her, a discredited scientist, a teenage runaway, a businessman run amok – but they’re Ray and Luz and Ig. We’re travelling with them because we just are.

The first thing I found myself loving was Luz’s dream-list about moving to Seattle, couched in language she probably wouldn’t have used (who would?) Too beautiful. Too writerly. But why not? Watkins is trying to convey something here, something that reaches past how characters ‘should’ be or how they should behave. Watkins doesn’t give a stuff about what she ‘should’ be writing. She writes as she writes, and I am drawn steadily deeper and deeper until I am caught.

“What the fuck?” said Ray. He pressed his foot to the felling thing and where he pressed the trunk collapsed, papery. Ig laughed like a hiccup. They investigated the broken stump and found it completely hollow, save for some dry, twiny marrow inside. 

Luz pushed carefully on the trunk of another towering yucca and it too crumpled to the ground, setting Ig agiggle.

“They’re dead,” Luz said. “All of them.” Dead, without moisture enough to rot.

“The groundwater’s gone,” said Ray, though he promised he wouldn’t. (p 87)

Devastating and terrifying. One of the most astute novelistic commentaries on climate change I’ve read and an essential addition to this particular canon of speculative literature. I feel enraged at Luz for leaving the top off the gasoline, for being so careless. That Watkins picks up on this kind of detail is something I noted with pleasure even as I felt horrified by it. Luz is sorry, like she always is. She meant no harm. The difference in my impatience with Luz now from the impatience I felt with her at the start of the novel is that now I like her. I envy her compassion, her unselfishness, appreciate how vulnerable she is. I think I even understand her, at least a little.

The pages where Luz and Ray are running out of gas are arid, desolate, hopeless. Brilliant. I find am loving every page of this book by this point.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert’s primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California’s Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins, Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification’s encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had long separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America. (p 118)

The red centre of the novel, the dune sea, like Hokusai’s wave, in a great arch, overreaching everything. Luz and Ray are separated: Luz to be rescued by Levi Zabriskie and his ‘family’, Ray, we find out later, to wander and to be beaten senseless (who by? You’ll find out), to be incarcerated for months in the underground Sangatte of the Limbo talc mine. There are strange legends – mole men, nuclear storage dumps, generations of unregistered Mojavs being born underground. Levi tells Luz the US government plans to nuke the whole area. What else are they to do with it? Luz thinks Ray is dead. She thinks Levi is a prophet. The language, in places, mimics the blurred, hallucinatory flow, the skewed ever-present tense of drug addiction. You came here for predictive science fiction? Fuck that bitch.

When Ray visited later that day, he visited a dingy solar-powered school bus in a madman’s colony, an outpost in the cruel tradition of outposts, peopled by prostitutes and loners and rejects and criminals and and liars, their sheriff a con and a thief and surely worse. (p 312.)

And so everything, in the end, comes back to the Spahn ranch, the lies, the seductions, the isolation. Was any of it even real?

Luz chooses for herself, finally, as she goes under. Ray soldiers on.

*

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book was called Batteborn, a collection of stories exploring the brutal and unforgiving landscape of her native Nevada, together with the story that lurks in the background of her own family, the dark legend of Charles Manson and his groupies, the deadly fantasy world he constructed for them out at the Spahn movie ranch, a fantasy they finally, brutally inflicted on the people they killed. I loved that book, I thought it was exceptional. When I heard that Watkins was writing a near-future science fiction novel set in the same kind of landscape, I was extremely excited.

If I imagined anything going in, I suppose I was expecting something a little like Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gold Fame Citrus is not like that novel, not in the least, though as speculative novels go I can see how they’re related through the importance they both ascribe to the role of language. But while Newman’s language serves her speculative conceit, Watkins’s undermines it. Constantly, determinedly. Ice Cream Star is a science fiction novel. Gold Fame Citrus exploits science fiction, but – searing commentary on environmental abuses and government cover-ups aside – it doesn’t give a damn about it.

Gold Fame Citrus is a novel affected by sunstroke. A hallucination. If it is about anything it is about the falsehoods and entrapments of communal folly, both in the private sphere and the political. About how one might wrestle free of such mental enslavement and what residual damage might exist, how it might still have the power to wreck lives and futures and thought processes long after it’s over.

I love the form this book takes: the wilful digressions, the embedded pamphlet, the theatrical interludes. I disagree totally with those reviewers who have suggested that this approach has sapped the energy of the central narrative. The central narrative is a tragedy, a predetermined sorrow. The accompanying threads of story are its Greek chorus. They’re also brilliantly compelling in their own right.

As a second work of fiction to follow Battleborn, I’d judge Gold Fame Citrus a step up in reach and ambition. Watkins has negotiated the leap to longer-length work with originality, dexterity, and equal intensity of focus. As story, the novel is scourging rather than satisfying because its sadness leaves us empty rather than full. As an exercise in the novel form, I would say it succeeds admirably, and with great inventiveness.

Where Watkins will go from here, it is impossible to guess.

(You can read an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins at Electric Literature here.)

New for spring…

occupy me. sullivanToday I’d like to say a few words about two brand new science fiction novels that I was lucky enough to have the chance to read in manuscript. The first is Occupy Me, by Tricia Sullivan. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of an angel discovering her true destiny, that would probably give you an extremely skewed idea of what this novel is actually like. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of a quantum being discovering the gateway to another universe, that might give you a better sense of the textures and themes you’ll find yourself experiencing if you pick up this book. Both statements would be true. Neither gives the whole picture.

“Most of the cabin class passengers are aware that they’re doing something extraordinary by flying. Even if they only let out a fleeting smile when looking out the window, or utter a silent prayer on landing, most of them sense that they are close to heaven. And heaven isn’t what you think it is. Heaven, even glimpsed side-on, is awesome. While folks are hurtling along at angel-altitude, their souls are open. Their hearts are accessible. Their minds can be touched. I’d like to think that a little nudge from me at the right moment on a flight can bring about long-term changes on Earth.”

I first read Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me in draft, in the summer of 2014, and I’m still trying to think of words that accurately describe it. ‘Adventurous’ and ‘ambitious’ don’t seem sufficient by themselves. ‘Experimental’ has to be in there somewhere, but I would hate to suggest that this novel doesn’t also deliver a blistering story. Occupy Me is skittish, fluid, unpredictable, rapturous, and wayward. There are so many ideas here – ideas on every page, jostling each other impatiently, like precocious children. I think the thing I love most about Occupy Me is that it feels so alive – as if those ideas are being created as you read about them, as if they’re still being thought about even as they plump down on the page. Nothing is fixed here – everything is up for grabs.

The voice of Occupy Me is alternately angry, tender, contentious and filled with wonderment. This is a novel in motion, and another thing I love about it is the way its language mirrors the mercurial fluidity of its thought processes. Sentence fragments, word cascades, thickets of imagery – this is a work in thrall to the power of the written word.

There need to be more science fiction novels like this: elusive, combative, curious, willing to take risks. Occupy Me is science fiction at its leading, not to say bleeding edge: there’s no formula for work of this kind. You won’t know exactly where you’re going until you get there.

It’s clear almost from the first that Occupy Me‘s central character Pearl is graft.2016working from a place of deep compassion. Compassionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the various protagonists of Matt Hill’s thrilling second novel Graft – the book opens with a particularly brutal punishment shooting – but travel the road with them a little further and you might be surprised.  What Graft also has in common with Occupy Me is an interest in quantum dimensions and parallel futures – according to Hill as to Sullivan, these can be very dangerous places to wind up in.

For anyone who’s read Hill’s debut, the terse and wonderfully unpredictable The Folded Man, his vision of a future Manchester – cracked and bleeding – will be familiar as well as fascinating. But you don’t have to have read that first book to enjoy this new one. Graft is more immediately accessible than The Folded Man, but its concepts and characters are no less challenging, no less original. As with Occupy Me, what I admire most about this novel is its language, its wily construction. You’ll begin by wondering where you are and what the hell is about to happen. But within a short space of time you’ll be drawn into a story you won’t want to put down. Matt Hill is shaping up to be one of the most innovative and outspoken new writers of British science fiction currently on the scene. If you enjoyed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, or Matthew di Abaitua’s The Red Men or If Then, then I’d strongly recommend you give Graft a read as soon as possible.

Beware the Manor Lord, though. And mind the Slope…

Graft is out any day now from Angry Robot. You’ll find an interview with Matt here at SFF World, and more on his insights and inspirations for Graft here at SF Signal.

Occupy Me is out now from Gollancz. Check out Tricia’s blog for more information on the science and even the music behind the novel, and listen to her in conversation with Mavesh Murad on the podcast Midnight in Karachi.

 

Two for the road – best of British

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

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

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

De Abaitua has certainly got his own back on Davina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crime blog #11

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning
(T. S. Eliot The Waste Land)

carthage oatesIt still amazes me, how critics still seem not to ‘get’ Joyce Carol Oates, how often her prodigious talent is spoken of dismissively, in belittling terms – ‘oh, Joyce Carol Oates, there’s just so much of it!’ – as if her very prodigiousness, the prolific expression of her talent could be a reason to reject it as something freakish and therefore unworthy in some way. 

‘She writes so much – is any of it any good?’

I’ve heard this said, seen it written. It often crosses my mind, and seems increasingly clear to me, that were Joyce Carol Oates a man her position as a ‘great American novelist’ would be assured. The broadsheets and the book blogs would all have been arguing over Carthage this summer instead of Purity. I wish they were. I wish they would. I think Oates is one of the greatest writers currently working, and I think that all the more because her books are not perfect. To me, each new novel (and I’ve probably read about half her output) feels like the next chapter, the next essay in an ongoing experiment, an ongoing project to discover the possibilities of the modern novel.

Some of these chapters are ragged, some are too long, some are just astounding. All are meant, involved, and acutely intelligent, the most complete expression of her intent the writer could manage at the time. All are worth reading, and all will stay with you, a quality which, surely, is one of the defining factors of great literature.

Fans of speculative fiction and horror in particular will be familiar with Oates’s interest in the gothic. Her most recent essay in the horror genre, 2013’s The Accursed, was a masterpiece of ambition and reach, spanning an American century, examining the guilt and tarnish at the heart of American privilege. I’ve written about the ‘Lovecraft chapter’ in The Accursed before, and it remains a shining memory.  I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the book’s sharp and canny mirroring of a perhaps-best-forgotten yet nonetheless fascinating horror novel of the 1970s, John Farris’s All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, turning the embarrassingly misused tropes of that novel against each other, like wild dogs.

But Oates is just as interested in crime fiction as she is in horror, and it’s precisely novels like Carthage – ambiguous, labyrinthine, incautious, imprecise – that I’m forever bemoaning the scarcity of in the genre.

Some of those who care to examine Carthage as a work of crime fiction might be tempted to define it as one of those (always intriguing) works – Patricia Highsmith made a speciality of them – which pose as crime fiction but lack its defining element: that is, a crime. This is one way of looking at the book, but I would counter that Carthage is a story about a murder – just not the murder that is foregrounded.

The crime is fully described. A person is arrested and imprisoned. These two events are not connected in the way that they should be.

Carthage tells the story of Cressida Mayfield, a precocious and alienated nineteen-year-old who goes missing from her home in Carthage, upstate New York. We learn of the desperate search for this lost young woman, of the violence that appears to have precipitated her disappearance, the parents, the sister, the suspect (who happens to have been engaged to the sister), the half-truths and evasions, the blank spaces in memory and chronology that form the core material of such addictive mysteries. Fans of Oates will instantly be catapulted back to her earlier examination of this subject – the devastating impact of violent crime upon a previously stable and contented household – in her 1996 masterpiece We Were the Mulvaneys.

This first section of the novel is then cut off in mid-stream, with no resolution in sight. We tun the page and the jolt of unexpected revelation is physically palpable. What follows is strange, and much less easy to define: hundreds of pages of back-and-forth story. Gradually we learn everything, and perhaps more than we felt we needed to know, about Cressida Mayfield and what happened to her. The last people to find out what we have come to accept as the facts of the case are those most directly affected: those whose lives these facts have ripped apart.

I loved this book, even when I wasn’t loving it, even when I was wishing Oates would get to – or rather get back to – the point. I loved it because it is the kind of text that reminds readers that literature can aspire to be more than simply a pastime, an entertainment. That it should ask questions to which the answers are not always knowable or uncontested. That it should present itself in forms that can appear unfinished, as if the writer were still working on the manuscript up until the point where it needed to be delivered, still enmeshed in the world of those characters and the moral and psychological problems they represent.

Texts like these – where the writer’s engagement with the subject remains visible to the reader – I find to be amongst the most rewarding and significant.

I also found it odd, reading Carthage. There’s some stuff in it that overlaps, quite a bit, with what I’ve been writing myself these past eighteen months. I’ll never be Oates, of course, and the backgrounds of our work – American, British – are so very different. But I can’t help but feel that pulse of an interest simultaneously shared, a synchronicity that is disconcerting as much as it is satisfying.

Mainly though, I’m just left wanting to read more Oates.

This is why we love Strange Horizons

core of the sun.sinisalo“People like to think there is a very sharp line between animal and human being, and I disagree. I think there are lots of little steps between the two, and between each other, and we really shouldn’t think that we are somehow separate from nature. We should recognise that we are animals, that we are hierarchical pack animals and that dominates our behaviour every day, in the ways that we are competitive and so on, but we don’t want to think about it. Our originality and uniqueness is an illusion. I want to have a prominent role for nature and the environment and other creatures, so that we understand that we can’t survive on this planet by ourselves.”

This quote is taken from Niall Harrison’s wonderful interview with the Finnish science fiction writer Johanna Sinisalo, just one of the items of special bonus content that SH has been putting up as part of its annual fund drive rewards scheme.

Sinisalo is, to my mind, one of the most original, committed and intelligent SFF writers currently working – I reviewed her 2014 novel The Blood of Angels for SH here – the kind of writer I feel privileged and blessed to have access to (thank you, translators!) Sinisalo demonstrates all by herself how important it is for those of us in UK/US/ANZ SFF to become aware of and immersed in writers from non-Anglophone backgrounds, how they enrich the genre and give it substance and question its assumptions. It is writers like Sinisalo who provide the rocket fuel that propels us all forward.

Right from the beginning, it has always been a large part of Strange Horizons’s remit, to promote new approaches and diverse talent, to keep science fiction on the radical edge of literature, as is its rightful place. Strange Horizons is a vital and irreplaceable part of the speculative literary landscape, and I would encourage anyone reading this to make a donation to the fund drive. SH is run by volunteers, and its contributors are paid entirely through donations – by you, in other words. Please help keep up the good work.

I’m beyond excited that Johanna Sinisalo has a new novel out soon, also that she’ll be a Guest of Honour at the 2017 Worldcon. If, like me, you can’t wait that long to read more of her, you can find a transcription of her 2015 GoH speech at this year’s Archipelacon here.