Category Archives: Women in SF

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time so I’m just going to say it: if Nicola Barker were a man, she would immediately become Significant, hailed as one of most exciting and innovative British writers of the postmodern era. As things stand, she is more usually sidelined into ‘quirky’, ‘whimsical’, ‘difficult’ or ‘depressing’. She has ‘a devoted cult following’, of course she does, and anyway, she was shortlisted for the Booker, so what does she have to moan about?

Why then is she still not discussed alongside Pynchon, Foer, Amis, Rushdie or even Mitchell? Barker’s oeuvre is remarkable in its depth of field, its social comment, its capacity for formal innovation. Her dialogue is incisive and brilliantly funny. The stories she tells offer an often excoriating commentary on the way we live now. Yet Barker is only ever discussed as an anomaly, a domestic comedian, an acquired taste. Why is this? The answer seems more depressingly clear with each new novel: women writers (still) aren’t expected to do this kind of stuff, so the narrative they get written into becomes subtly twisted.

“I know that piece.” The Stranger – Savannah – nodded towards ****, but his eyes remained fixed on me. “There are three parts to it. The Prelude was written long after the other two movements, but now it sits at the start. It is wistful, melancholy. There are bells ringing throughout. And an organ plays Bach. The composer – Augustin Barrios – was of indigenous blood. A great Romantic. A genius.”

“He died, in poverty, of syphilis,” **** sneered. “What possible romance is there in that?”

Nicola Barker’s new novel H(A)PPY is remarkable in many ways.  The dystopia it portrays is all the more chilling because it is presented as a utopia: there are no mass killings, no persecution, no banned books. All that is understood to be in the past. The social coercion that exists – to be perfect, to be happy, to discard the depressing march of history in favour of universal progress – exists because it has been chosen, because people accede to it willingly. No one is hungry, confused or in need. For Mira A, her desire to find out about a particular figure from the past – the Paraguayan musician and composer Augustin Barrios – is dangerous only in that it throws her preconceptions – her notion of happiness – into doubt. Like turning back the corner of a rug to reveal the dirty floor beneath, one small revelation can lead to a greater, more far reaching revelation that has huge implications. So it is for Mira A. So it is with H(A)PPY. So it is for the question over the reception of Barker’s writing.

In H(A)PPY, even the choice of the guitarist as hero is significant. The guitar has often been looked down upon as a folk instrument, an instrument lacking in subtlety, flexibility or repertoire, insignificant precisely because of its accessibility. The great novels of music have tended to place their focus upon the piano or the violin – glamorous and complicated, the instruments of record for tortured, glamorous, misunderstood males. Barker’s choice of the guitar – available to everyone, easily portable, a ready accompaniment and partner to the human voice, the natural instrument of protest – is in itself an act of rebellion, a way of smuggling subversive ideas between the cracks of cultural orthodoxy.

I scowl and turn again to the native – the performer – the patriot – the humiliation – the farce. Which of these two should I address? I wonder. Which do I prefer? Both are unreal. Both have been so carefully, so painstakingly constructed. Can these two – the one so civilised, so polite, so careful: the other so fearless and ridiculous and romantic – be merely one entity? Is that feasible? How might I conceivably hope to address them when I am not even able to unite them successfully within my own consciousness.

The native Barrios sits down on a pew and begins to play. The kneeling Barrios covers his ears. 

Here Barker illuminates the duality of Barrios, a natural genius forced to adopt Western models of excellence in order to be taken seriously as a composer, whilst simultaneously being driven to perform his nationality in order to enhance his stage persona. As she is drawn to examine Barrios’s inner conflict in greater depth, so Mira A discovers a similarly corrosive dichotomy within herself.

H(A)PPY addresses Barker’s recurring concerns – class, celebrity, capitalism, the slippery, explosive power of the written word – whilst also exploring questions of power inequalities between citizens and state, Western nations and indigenous peoples. I found in H(A)PPY some of the same quietly oppressive quality that characterises Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, a chilling vision of the alternate near future that is all the more effective for being so understated.

As science fiction, H(A)PPY is brilliant: inventive and thought provoking and unlike anything you’ll have read so far this year. In the games it plays with scrambled fonts and typographic art, you will probably be reminded of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, always a good thing in my book. Barker recommends reading H(A)PPY whilst listening to the music of Barrios, a ploy some might dismiss as a gimmick but that I would go along with, one hundred percent. In fact it’s a shame the publisher couldn’t have gone the extra mile and included a CD recording tucked into the back flap. Luckily you don’t have to search far to find what you’re looking for. As a novel about music, H(A)PPY is one of the most imaginative and powerful I’ve ever read.

In many ways, this is the novel I wanted Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality to be. H(A)PPY is more successful for me as science fiction through being more explicit, and Barker’s writing about Augustin Barrios was never not going to resonate. I love this book. I think Nicola Barker is a genius. Should H(A)PPY end up on the Clarke shortlist in 2018? Hell, yes.

Afterwards: thinking about the Sharke

It always happens to me: just when I think I’m done with science fiction, I find myself falling in love with it all over again.

This recurrence of enthusiasm is often the by-product of annoyance at the continuing snobbism shown by the literary world towards SF – that radio interview of Zachary Mason’s was a classic case in point – but there’s more to it than that. I look at the deluge of ‘astonishing’ literary debuts and I feel fatigued. Fatigued by so much competent averageness. I find myself thinking that no matter how short of its own ambitions SF falls sometimes, at least it’s trying to do something.

On one of my Fantasticon panels in Copenhagen I found myself talking once more about ‘the conversation’ and how important it was to me when I first became involved with the SF community. Even as I was speaking I realised how much this is still the case. I’m damned if I’ll concede the field, even when the field and I seem to be going about our business from opposite standpoints. At its core, science fiction is a political literature, a literature that engages with the world in a way that seems not just apposite but necessary, especially now. How many more luminous coming of age novels does the world really need?

I returned from Copenhagen to find three insightful, reflective, hopeful posts from fellow Sharkes Megan AM, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid, looking back on our project as it unfolded and expressing some possible new directions for its future. It was great to read their thoughts, and the comments on them, not least because they gave me a sense of how much we accomplished in generating conversation, not only around the Clarke Award but around SF in general, which of course was the reason we decided to convene the shadow jury in the first place.

I do my best not to be irritable as a person, but I know I can be irritable intellectually. I get cross easily. I have snap reactions. I demand things to be better without examining my own assumptions and prejudices in sufficient depth. Megan insists that the Sharke did not fatigue her, that she was SFatigued even before we started. If anything, I was the opposite: I went into the Sharke determined that we could change things, that we could identify what was ‘wrong’ with the direction the Clarke seemed to be taking and suggest an alternative. I ended up feeling demoralised, mainly I suspect because of the sheer volume of words and self-motivation necessary to guide the project through to its conclusion, which is fair enough. At the same time though I felt profoundly irritated by much of what I’d read, irritated by a science fiction that seemed on the point of running aground in shallow waters and with no hope of refloating itself. I was, in a very real sense, exhausted.

It is surprising what a couple of weeks’ rest and a temporary change of scene can do to get the heart and mind and brain back into gear. In Copenhagen, I found myself wondering if I’d been playing devil’s advocate against myself, waving a flag for something I didn’t actually believe in, much less want. A science fiction that reads like Jonathan Franzen? Regardless of whether such an outcome might be possible, is it even desirable? I cannot count the number of times I have found myself feeling disappointed – irritated – with mainstream literary works that employ science fictional conceits as an exotic backdrop for more conventional concerns. Such a use hints at closure, at circumscribing an idea, at presenting it in terms that will further enhance an already established concept. Such a use would seem to be the opposite of science fiction.

And yet it would be equally disingenuous to suggest that ‘real’ science fiction is the sole prerogative of works published as genre, and by genre imprints. A derivative genre work – a work that lazily recycles old tropes, a work that uses the trappings of science fiction to perpetuate a retrograde worldview – is as unsatisfying in science fictional terms as a bland mainstream offering such as Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles or Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. On the other hand, we see so-called literary works by writers such as Michel Faber, Nicola Barker, Joanna Kavenna and Dexter Palmer coming at science fiction head on and with a sense of excitement. Works such as these, replete with living ideas, should be considered equally as SF and without the ‘literary’ tag clipped on as some sort of disclaimer. If I have come to any conclusions during the time since we hung up our Sharke fins, it is that the ‘literary SF’ label should be dispensed with entirely. It is divisive, ultimately meaningless and unfit for purpose. It seems to me that what distinguishes science fiction from other modes of literature is its vitality, the sense it gives of being in the presence of an idea that is still evolving. If such vitality is present, then whether a work is published by Voyager or by Vintage is of little account. That years of discussion and controversy have been predicated on industry window dressing seems ludicrous and destructive, just a backhand way of perpetrating stereotypes on both sides of the publishing divide. Such arbitrary distinctions hamper the conversation and I intend to avoid them entirely from now on.

The Sharke has changed me in multiple ways, most obviously as a critic and as a reader. Looking back on the self that first conceived the project, I now believe I had become as entrenched within a certain comfort zone as any hardcore space opera fan, accustomed to looking in the same places for what I deemed noteworthy, places that accorded comfortably with my expectations, which in their turn had mostly to do with style. How much more interesting to strip away one’s assumptions and see what happens. To come at things from a different angle. To stop feeling the need to fight a particular corner in terms of what is good and what is best. Personally, I’m still not a fan of The Underground Railroad. To my mind, it is possibly the most ‘commercial’ novel on the Clarke Award shortlist and its bland surface texture renders it ultimately forgettable to me as a reading experience. I find some of the sentence structure, not to mention the use of science fiction in Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me to be far more interesting. I have found the abstruse weirdness and raw vitality of Ninefox Gambit hanging around in my mind far longer than, for example, the sensitively rendered but ultimately predictable dystopian role-playing of Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came. Viewed from this new perspective, the landscape of science fiction looks much more exciting to me than it did even before the Sharke was launched.

Part of the problem I have found not just in reviewing science fiction but in thinking about it too is the pressure to come to a conclusion, to pick a side. The journalistic format one so easily falls into for so much reviewing favours tidy summaries and directed arguments, the need to dismiss or approve a work, style, or line of reasoning quickly and concisely and then move on. To paraphrase W. H. Davies, there seems to be less and less time for literary critics to stop and stare, to present their thoughts as a series of questions rather than striving towards an answer that is ultimately trite. This is a matter I would like to address in future by steering myself towards a different kind of criticism, a criticism that is thoughtfully expansive rather than reductive.

I would also like to address the issue of diversity. I think the best thing I can do here is to refer you back to Gareth Beniston’s Clarke Thoughts post, in which he raises the question of continuing systemic bias within publishing and its inevitable knock-on effect on literary awards, including the Clarke. Gareth’s guest essay was one of the Sharke’s most commented-upon posts – a positive development indeed in that it shows how people are finally becoming engaged with this discussion, negative in that no constructive conclusions were reached, in spite of a general agreement that ‘something must be done’.

Our current situation is a disaster. Only last week another article was published, reporting the findings of a recent survey: that the British publishing industry remains 90% white. It is imperative that this state of affairs is made to change, not just on account of those talented individuals whose pathway into the creative industries is effectively being blocked, but especially because of what it says about where we are as a society. British cultural institutions are atrophying under the weight of reaction. British political culture is more toxic than it was in the days of Enoch Powell. We have somehow created a climate where thousands of people think Jacob Rees Mogg would be a reasonable choice to be our next prime minister, for fuck’s sake. We are a dead country walking. This is urgent, and it is urgent now. After a considerable amount of post-Sharke soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that positive action is more important than obeisance to a brand of objectivity that is specious in any case. At the very least, the Clarke Award should begin admitting entry to works not published in the UK. The current rules have meant that some of the most interesting and important SF by minority and marginalised writers has been ineligible for the Clarke because it happens to have been published in the USA. An award for best science fiction novel that does not take account of the work published by Aqueduct Press, just for example, is setting itself up to be parochial and restrictive. Most works by established writers are published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in any case – with the result that the only works being blocked are precisely those works that we need to see more of.

We also urgently need our Clarke jurors to be drawn from a larger, more diverse pool. And as for Niall Harrison’s suggestion in the comments on Gareth’s piece that we conduct a one-year experiment in which only novels by black and ethnic minority writers would be eligible? Why on Earth not? Such an experiment would, as Niall suggests, be bound to draw attention to publishing disparities. It would also give rise to one hell of an interesting discussion. We desperately need change. At some point, someone needs to take the lead in promoting change. What better institution than the Clarke?

Much of what I’m saying here is simply a longer reflection on that Mackenzie Wark essay I mentioned in an earlier post, a more sustained amen. I am so horrified by the current political impasse that I cannot, at the present moment, see how the bourgeois novel, as Wark described it, can be anything other than an obsolescence, an inappropriate reassurance, if not a defence than a passive reflection of the status quo.

I think I can also safely say that I’m coming out of my Sharke-fatigue. I find myself feeling compelled to read science fiction again. For better or worse, it seems I’m stuck with it. I’m going in.

Why it matters

“The big one, though, is that representation matters: a female Doctor will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero. There’s a video going round Twitter at the moment of a girl, perhaps nine years old, watching the BBC as the casting is revealed, completely silent until the very end. Only then does she turn to the camera with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and scream, “The new Doctor’s a girl!” That is why this is a great day, right there.”

(Jonn Elledge, New Statesman.)

Dreams Before the Start of Time

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

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

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

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

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

 

#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.)