Category Archives: books

Other doors than these

I came across this interesting post earlier today, in which book blogger David Hebblethwaite explains most eloquently how paper books will, for him, always trump the ebook as a reading experience:

When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me… If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

David goes on to explain how with an ereader he finds himself ‘focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context’. I’ve heard this argument rehearsed before, or variants of it – that the ereader encourages a cursory, somehow surface reading, and that the experience, once completed, leaves no residue. Take this piece in The Independent for example:

One study showed that in a group reading the same book, e-readers had a lower plot recall, which was credited to a lack of “solidity”. When we can’t see the pile of pages growing on the left and shrinking on the right, the book is, apparently, less fixed for us.

I would once have sided with these kind of arguments absolutely. I have enjoyed a passion for physical books literally for as long as I can remember. Like many devoted readers, I can remember individual copies of specific books right back to my nursery school days. I feel saddened, even now, when I think of the way many of our public libraries have been semi-denuded of actual books, those heavy, plastic-jacketed hardbacks so particular to libraries, rank upon rank of them, with their particular, magical smell, the weight of them in your arms as you queued up at the desk to have them stamped and then hugged them to your chest as you carried them home. All memories, all precious. For me, the text of a book has often allied itself almost seamlessly with the physical substance of a particular copy – the book is the book, if you like, a form of imagic identification that I would venture to suggest attaches itself to books and books alone.

Because books are magic. I’m not ashamed to say it and I hope I never will be. I’m also one of those people who still buys CDs because I like the liner notes and the album covers and the lyrics sheets. I don’t actually own a stereo at the moment – I copy new albums on to my hard drive more or less as soon as I acquire them – but the idea of purchasing a download rather than the actual physical item? Not for me.

It’s just about twelve months now since I flew out to Australia. I looked forward to the flight as a time of reading, and packed accordingly. I should have known better. I need natural daylight or bright lamplight directly on to the page to read comfortably. Seated away from the window and with only the pallid, ambient light of the aeroplane cabin to see by, I was unable to read more than two or three pages for the whole twenty hours. (I had to content myself with Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instead, just in case you’re wondering… ) As someone who finds it more or less impossible to sleep on planes, this was not a fun experience.

On arrival in Tasmania, the problems continued. Although perfect in every other way, the cabins and cottages we stayed in lacked any kind of adequate reading lamp, and I was instantly reminded of all the dozens of similar experiences I’d endured in hotels over the years, having to remove the lampshade from the pathetic bedside light in order to have even the faintest chance of reading before sleep. In Tasmania I was lucky. My mother, a convert to the ereader ever since her first trip to Australia some years before, generously lent me her Kindle, while she took over one of my physical books instead. What a revelation.

This was my first experience of using an ereader, believe it or not. I had no ideological objection to them – they just weren’t for me, or so I thought, which turned out to be pretty stupid, because the Kindle might have been designed especially for me.  Instead of struggling with closely packed .8 text on mottled, semi-translucent, poor quality paper, I had properly spaced .12 on a clear white background. Instead of having to sit right by a window or beneath an Anglepoise, I could read wherever I wanted to, up to and including an unlit room, because the Kindle would automatically adjust its light settings to my comfort level. It is difficult to express the delight this discovery brought me, and still brings.

Because of the steadily declining quality of most mass-market paperbacks, I’d already been purchasing second-hand hardbacks wherever I could, and failing that trade paperback editions, which are mostly better made and certainly better designed with the reader in mind. I’ve certainly no regrets about this – I’ve amassed some beautiful books this way, and given that the physical book is no less an object of veneration for me than it has always been, this is all to the good. But there were certain books I wanted very much to read, but put off reading because there was no decent hardback or trade paperback edition out there, and I knew the struggle with the blurry micro-text of the mass-market paperback would more than half-destroy any pleasure the book might otherwise have brought me. The most notable example here was Delany’s Dhalgren – the original mass-market paperback of this text is a tiny monstrosity, and even the new Gollancz Masterworks edition, with its closely packed, slightly blurry text, would have been a trial. Now, suddenly, Dhalgren and other books with similar print-quality issues were available for me to read in comfort. Far from losing concentration, my mind became liberated to contemplate the text. Suddenly I could read, rather than having to grind away at the difficulty of physically reading.

My reading speed went back up again, too. I’m not quite as fast as I was when I was in my twenties, but getting up there.

I still adore physical books – they’re piled all around me as I write. My experience of certain texts is still bound up in the memory of certain books, their physical presence, their weight, their smell, their specialness for other reasons. I am as emotional about books-as-things as I ever was. I think I may even subscribe to the belief that a book read electronically will never carry quite the same power and import, over time, as a book held in the hand, closed shut last thing at night. But I want to speak in passionate defence of the ereader also, for the freedom it has brought me, that it has no doubt brought to thousands of others, to enjoy books where physical limitations might have made them inaccessible.

And if I read something on my Kindle that turns out to be more than just a book I want to read – a book I want to keep, and hold, and flick back and forth in, run my fingers down its spine as I gloat over my amassed book-treasure – then I can look forward to the pleasure of buying it again in used-hardback format. A pleasure I’m looking forward to right at this moment with Hanya Yanagihara’s quite simply amazing The People in the Trees

Crime blog #6

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright tony&susan.cover

Susan Morrow, comfortable if not entirely content in her marriage to hospital consultant Arnold, is contacted out of the blue by her first husband Edward. Edward always wanted to be a writer – indeed, his decision to abandon his law studies in pursuit of what Susan privately considered to be a hopeless dream was at least part of what led to the breakdown of their marriage. Now it seems that dream wasn’t so hopeless after all – Edward’s letter accompanies the manuscript of his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he wants Susan to read. ‘You always were my best critic’, he reminds her. Will she take a look at what he has written, and let him know what she thinks of it?

Of course Susan can’t resist. Was she right to dismiss Edward’s ambitions all those years ago, or does her ex have a genuine talent? Besides, with Arnold away at a conference, possibly with an old flame, Susan needs something to divert her. She begins reading more or less straight away – and finds herself propelled back into the past with disconcerting speed.

I honestly don’t know what I think of this book. I loved the concept, the way the book alternates between Susan-reading and what Susan is reading, i.e the story of Tony Hastings in Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. Susan’s sections are both a commentary on that novel, and a story in their own right – the story of her marriage to Edward and her current suspicions about her second husband, the arrogant, unimaginative and rather blokish doctor Arnold.  The first chapters of Nocturnal Animals, in which Tony Hastings has his life torn apart while en route with his wife and daughter to their summer place in Maine, are without a doubt the most compelling part of the whole. At this point I felt a genuine sympathy for Tony, as well as a driving compulsion to discover what happened next. I admired the style of the narrative, pared down and terse yet still fascinatingly introspective. Susan’s sections worked brilliantly with the Tony chapters, providing an effective contrast and an intriguing counterpoint with the shocking events as they unfolded in Nocturnal Animals.

So where did it all go wrong? For me, I think Tony and Susan began to come unstuck as Nocturnal Animals began to turn from tragedy to farce. Tony-the-victim is a pitiable figure. One feels for his initial predicament – indeed one suspects that one might not have behaved much better in similar circumstances – and the horror of the immediate aftermath of that predicament is brilliantly described. Yet Tony-the-avenging-angel is ridiculous, annoying and frustratingly gullible. His acquiescence in what happens next – a crime almost as repulsive and wrong-headed as the crime that led him there – proves the final nail in the coffin of credibility. I’d be fine with all this if I were convinced Austin Wright meant us to feel this way, if Nocturnal Animals were intended as some kind of Dostoevskian comment on the criminal-as-us, but I’m not convinced this is the case. The whole thing feels clumsily handled, as if Wright – and through him, Edward – wasn’t entirely sure what he meant us to think of Tony, and by extension the novel as a whole.

And in the end, Susan’s own story isn’t interesting enough to compete with Tony’s. I’d be the last reader to demand melodrama, but I was left wanting more here, and not in a good way.

I would definitely recommend Tony and Susan, because in spite of the novel’s flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy.  There’s the form, for a start, so full of the potential to fascinate, which for a lot of the time it absolutely does. And whatever you think of the ending, or the characters for that matter, I absolutely guarantee you won’t be bored. You’ll keep on reading, turning those pages just like Susan, both excited and afraid of what you might find.

James Herbert Award – the inaugural shortlist

Well, it seems we have a new SFFH fiction prize to add to the excitement of the annual awards season. The James Herbert Award for Horror Writing is a juried award, with a prize of £2,000, set up with the purpose of showcasing excellence and diversity within the horror genre. Administered by Pan Macmillan and chaired by Tom Hunter, the award is open to novels written in English and published within the UK and Ireland within the given year. The inaugural shortlist is as follows:

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey (Orbit)

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Headline)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)

Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Harper/Voyager)

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (Tartarus)

An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman (Titan Books)

Initial thoughts? Unfortunately I haven’t read any of these, so I can’t comment on individual titles. (Indeed, this list brings home to me how much my reading has been dominated by science fiction recently – perhaps I need to do something about that and catch up on some horror?) But as someone who has a special fondness for Tartarus Press (my first professional sale was to Tartarus, my story ‘Terminus’) it’s lovely to see one of their titles on this list. And Frances Hardinge is an amazing writer – Cuckoo Song is already on my e-reader, ready and waiting.

For the most part, I’m one of those people who stand in favour of literary awards, mainly because I believe anything that gets people excited about books, and most importantly the discussion of books, cannot be a bad thing. So it’s nice to see a British award specifically for horror writing, something we’ve not had to date, and a prize that will, I hope, be a welcome alternative and complement both to the invariably and hugely US-dominated Bram Stoker Award.

Some questions occur, however. What’s this stipulation about works having to be ‘written in English’? Does this mean that translated works, appearing for the first time in English in the year in question, are to be actively barred, and if so, why? I would think the award would be the poorer for not admitting work by Johanna Sinisalo, say, or John Ajvide Lindqvist, or Otsuichi (one of the best horror writers working today, in my opinion), and that’s to name but three.

And then, all too quickly, we’re forced to confront yet again the accusation that horror as a field is narrow and blokish. I’m just going to come out and say that the Stoker preliminary ballot is horrifically male-dominated this year, and everyone knows that this has always been the rule rather than the exception. It’s sad to see, and YES, to anyone who still doubts it, this DOES matter.

Excluding translated works from the Herbert isn’t going to do much for its commitment to diversity, and neither is repeating the predictable and retrograde biases of the Stoker.

Of course, any new award is going to take a while to find its feet and discover its identity. I would wish the Herbert well, whilst hoping it actively seeks to develop the kind of imaginative insight and progressive approach that will enable it to properly live up to its stated ambitions.

That will be something to get people talking.

EDIT Feb 12: I’ve just heard from the James Herbert Award’s administrator, Tom Hunter, that there is no bar on translated horror fiction, and that any work appearing for the first time in English in the given year would be fully eligible for the award. Which is fantastic news. Here’s hoping we see some of the amazing European and World horror fiction that’s out there appearing on the Herbert shortlist in future years!

Into 2015

lagoon.nnediI’ve just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, and what a surprising, inventive and above all enriching text it is. It took me a while to get into this novel, but suddenly it all started coming together for me and by the end I felt literally breathless with excitement at what I’d read. This is a story – with its jump cuts, tessellations and chaotic crowd scenes, Okorafor encourages us to view it as a film – about aliens invading the city of Lagos, but such a bald summary seems too straightforward for a book that will feel unlike any other alien invasion story you’ve ever read. Science fiction cohabits with fantasy in the most relaxed, devil-take-it manner, producing a vigorous, gorgeous mutation, a runaway train of speculation that is, well, exactly what the book-doctor ordered. It’s fearless.

Predictably, it was the deft post-modernist touches that, for me, lifted the novel beyond the good and towards outstanding. I loved the ‘I was there’ chapters – non-linear snapshots of narrative from random people caught up by events – and those ‘wink’ moments when Okorafor steps out of the text to ask her readers: ‘How would you have felt?’ Of course I’m going to love the Spider the Artist sections, and indeed all the chapters narrated by non-human characters (a swordfish, a bat, a tarantula, a man-eating road) were pure narrative joy. I loved the ‘deleted’ chapter set in Chicago, too – there are so many memorable moments and ideas. Oh, and did I mention the richness of the language, the textures of languages, plural, that permeate this book? I could go on and on.

I am lost in admiration of Okorafor’s creativity, the way she seizes her themes, weaving humour and beauty and stark political commentary seamlessly together. I especially appreciate what Lagoon has to say about instinct and logic, how both are important and indeed essential – to art, to science, to a balanced view of the world, to life.

SFF like this – SFF that obeys no pre-set archetypes and invents its own rules – is such a breath of fresh air. It reminds us of the limitless possibilities of the genre, encourages us to try writing (or indeed reading) something new and inimitably personal to us.

What a wonderful book, and what a perfect start to my reading in 2015. How it surprised me. I love it when this happens.

For the year ahead, there are still some 2014 titles I want to read before I start turning my attention to what’s coming out this year – 2014 seems to have been an exceptional year for SFF novels, I think, which should hopefully make things interesting as awards season rolls around. I’m also intending to shore up some of the gaps in my SFF knowledge in 2015 by making a conscious effort to read more back catalogue SF – I’ve not read A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, or Dhalgren, The Female Man, Kindred and that’s just for starters.

And what about 2015 titles I am looking forward to? I’m sure there are loads I don’t know about yet, hopefully with many exciting discoveries among them. But of those I do know about, books I’m especially looking forward to include Kelly Link’s new collection Get in Trouble, China Mieville’s new collection Three Moments of an Explosion, Catherynne Valente’s Art Deco Hollywood-in-space novel Radiance (if it’s anything like as wonderful as ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ it’s going to be fantastic), Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Anna Small’s The Chimes and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (both these last sound really intriguing). Looks like a good year to me!

A new year, a new Europe…

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

Yet Shomer lives still.

(A Man Lies Dreaming p79) amld.ltidhar

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

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

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

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

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

(A Man Lies Dreaming p 99)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Only forward

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

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

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

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

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

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

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

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

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

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

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

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

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

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

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

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

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

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

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

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

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

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

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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

12) J by Howard Jacobson

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

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

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

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

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

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

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favourite Hallowe’en reads

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

1) Peter Straub – Ghost Story.

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

2) Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching

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

3) Joyce Carol Oates – Bellefleur

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

4) Ramsey Campbell – The House on Nazareth Hill

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

5) Clive Barker – The Books of Blood

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

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

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

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.

Flesh and Bones

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Bookered?

The 2014 Man Booker shortlist has just been announced:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

J – Howard Jacobson

The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

At first sight, I would say a lot of horse-trading has been going on here. There seems no overall form to this shortlist, no statement, no ideology, no plan. It’s a mixed bag of the judges’ personal favourites. What it says more than anything else is: ‘Here are some books we liked – please take one.’ A bit like this year’s Clarke shortlist, in fact. Disappointing.

The only book I’m unequivocally delighted to see on this list is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I hope it goes on to win. Ali Smith is one of the most important and interesting writers working today. She’s never afraid to experiment, but she’s never afraid to be readable, either. She’s interested in story, in delivering words that people want to read – but she’s also deeply immersed in literature, as a project, as a vocation, as an ongoing and evolving commitment. Go, Ali!

I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised to see David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks miss out on a shortlist place. I think it’s a book that would have split the jury down the middle, and thus it fell through the gap. I very much wanted to see it on the shortlist, for all kinds of reasons – but I didn’t think it should win. I intend to write more about why in the near future.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been one of my favourite books of the year so far – but I think Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World goes further and deeper and would have made more of an impact on this shortlist. The Blazing World is the kind of book you would find yourself wanting to read again and again and getting more from it each time, and I’m not sure that We Are All Completely… is. So Fowler’s inclusion is a win one, lose one situation for me.

I’ve not read Howard Jacobson’s J yet, but Chris has. He finished it just the other night and did not like it at all. I told him I’d read it to keep him company if it made the shortlist, and so that’s the book I’ll be tackling next. My guess is that I’m going to find it far more interesting to compare Mitchell’s approach to SFF with Jacobson’s than to bother with trying to pick the eventual winner from the actual Man Booker goodie bag. So it goes.