Category Archives: books

#weird2016: Slade House by David Mitchell

slade house.mitchellThe events of this short novel begin in 1979, when Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita arrive at the eponymous Slade House in response to an invitation from its châtelaine, Lady Norah Grayer. Rita is there to play the piano at one of Lady Norah’s soirées. Nathan, a complicated, lonely boy, is shown the grounds by Norah’s son Jonah, who suggests they play a game of tag called Fox and Hounds. Slade House is hard to find – Nathan and Rita pass by the gate twice without seeing it – and the place seems frozen in time somehow, a faerie landscape too perfect to be true. In the manner of all decent fairy tales, this turns out to be the case. Norah and Jonah have an ulterior motive in inviting the Bishops into their domain. That neither of them get to leave would seem par for the course.

I’m nonplussed by Slade House, in pretty much the same way I was nonplussed by The Bone Clocks. You don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to make sense of this book, although how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you enjoyed – or would enjoy – the earlier novel. We’re back in the land of soul vampires, of the eternally warring clans of Anchorites and Horologists. As in The Bone Clocks, the fantasy tropes Mitchell employs are of the most predictable kind, the most basic of base metals. That Mitchell chooses to essentially repeat his basic plot – an Engifted individual arrives at the house, finds their most earnest desires fulfilled, and then gets their soul sucked through a straw (kind of literally, actually) by devious semi-immortal twins – through the first four of these five interlinked short stories could be read as either daring or desperate, depending on your point of view. Oh, and then Marinus turns up. Whether this pleases you or pisses you off will, once again, be down to how deeply you’re in love with David Mitchell’s concept of the mega-novel and the characters that recur within its endlessly expanding galleries and corridors.

It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Would we even be talking about this book if it weren’t by David Mitchell? In terms of its invention and originality it is fairly weak beer. Mitchell has to employ vast tonnages of exposition to make sense of everything, and had this been the first manuscript Mitchell ever turned in I don’t think he’d have got all that far with it. But Mitchell is a part of our literary landscape now, and – as is inevitably the case when an author becomes enshrined in this way – everything he writes is considered to be interesting at some level.

Which Slade House  – undoubtedly and against all greater logic – still is. What makes me draw back from giving this book an emphatic thumbs down is – as with The Bone Clocks – its glorious readability. There are slips and slides even here: Mitchell seems to have fallen into the habit of making everyone talk in Noughties Estuary, even when it’s not appropriate to the character in question (I don’t think the seriously posh Chloe Chetwynd would naturally talk about ‘legging it’, for example). Nathan Bishop is an engaging character and I enjoyed the chauvinistic cop Gordon Edmonds as I tend to enjoy all Mitchell’s bad guys. But elsewhere the characterisation tends towards the broad-brush – see the students in ‘Oink Oink’ in particular. It would be pedantic and boring of me to mention the ‘how can these narratives be possible when the narrator ends up dead???’ thing, though not mentioning it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. But Mitchell’s command of the English language is so effortless, so welcoming. Mitchell is a natural storyteller – you can’t help but follow where he wants to take you.

As a writer I have always felt a great affinity with Mitchell’s shopworn, 1970s-housing-estate Britain – I am deeply attached to Black Swan Green in particular – and there’s plenty of that on display here.  I have serious criticisms of this book. It is difficult to understand how Mitchell’s cartoonish use of fantasy archetypes might be taken seriously – I think I’d be more sympathetic to the enterprise if the whole thing were a send-up, but I don’t think it is. There’s too much (cough) soul-searching for that, too much clunky tying-in of this story’s somewhat black-and-white morality with realworld politics. It’s all a bit of a junkyard. Some nice stuff here but what to make of it?

And yet (as with The Bone Clocks) I can’t help but admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slade House. How do you explain that, except by saying that by worming his way so deeply and so fatally into our subconscious, Mitchell is – like his Anchorites – still capable of genuine magic. Not sure whether to recommend this book or not. But I guess if you’re a Mitchell fan you’ll own a copy already.

#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.

The Last Hurrah?

clarke20I first became aware of the Arthur C. Clarke Award at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was starting to take a professional interest in what we like to call the field. Prior to that, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as the Clarke Award – I knew Margaret Atwood had won it, for example – but not of how it related to other awards and to critical discourse. I remember the announcement of the winner – Perdido Street Station – in 2001, largely because of the gathering interest around a certain up-and-coming young writer named China Mieville, but the first year I can recall taking an active interest in the award at the shortlist stage was 2003. Two of the novels on that shortlist – Christopher Priest’s The Separation (Chris and I didn’t meet in person until 2004 but I’d been an admirer of his writing for years) and M. John Harrison’s Light – were key works for me, novels from what I might loosely have termed ‘my’ science fiction. I was interested to see how the battle between them would play out. Also on that shortlist was The Scar, which I still consider to be Mieville’s finest novel to date. These were big hitters, big books. The Clarke was clearly an award to take note of and I was officially hooked.

One of the central reasons the Clarke became so interesting to me is that it is a juried award. Nothing involving human beings can ever be entirely objective, but the presence of a jury – a panel of persons selected for their ability to be impartial and for their knowledge of the field – does at least suggest a level of discipline, critical acumen and meaningful debate that should but rarely does pertain to fan awards. At the simplest level, only a vanishingly small number of fans – now so more than ever – can ever hope to come close to reading all the books – or even all the critically relevant books – in contention for an award, which means that very nearly everyone voting, and this includes you and me, will be voting from a position of partiality right from the start. Add to this the ease with which fan-voted awards can be gamed – the Sad and Rabid Puppies being merely the most recent perpetrators of such shenanigans – and you end up with something that is practically worthless in critical terms, and only rarely approaches a broad consensus of what ‘most’ fans ‘like’. Add to that the sheer tininess of some of the committed voting pools – the BSFA Award for example often has fewer than 150 people voting – and the picture looks even bleaker.

The critical discourse around fan awards also tends to be lacklustre. In 2015, for example, it centred almost entirely around the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaign, and not in a good way. Instead of focussing on the terrifyingly poor quality of many of the shortlisted works – which would at least have provided some amusement, not to mention more than sufficient reason to prompt those blanket No Award votes in and of itself – criticism rapidly polarised into mostly unexamined, gloves-off prejudice on one hand, self-righteous faux-indignation on the other. Such polemic quickly becomes repetitive and predictable and is ultimately meaningless. It is as morally easy to be outraged by the bigoted (and ludicrous) pronouncements of Vox Day as it is to despise the buffoonery (and bigotry) of Donald Trump. It is not so easy, apparently, for us to have a conversation about the greyer areas of SF politics: the ostracism of individuals for expressing contentious views, the log-rolling openly engaged in by writers you like and whose work you admire, the cliques and hierarchies that do exist, in publishing as well as fandom, the edging aside of rigorous critical discourse in favour of mutual back-scratching and social approbium.

As a juried award, the Clarke Award is not subject to such indignities. As a juried award for the ‘best science fiction novel’ of the given year, it should have critical value, not simply in selecting a single title but in generating conversation and debate among readers and critics: what constitutes science fiction, what are the issues currently at stake, what is ‘best’? A literature exists in symbiosis with its critical hinterland, and, it seemed to me when I began taking notice in 2003, the Clarke Award was well placed to form a kind of central axis around which British science fiction might revolve, a critical hub, if you like. Added to that, it was ours – named for a British writer and indisputably British in tone, even as it opened its borders to books from all nations. This is why I became interested in it, and why, sometimes against my better judgement, I remain interested in it still. I care much less about which book actually wins than the critical process by which the selection is arrived at. I like the talk.

The Clarke Award is thirty this year, and when I was invited to be on a panel at Eastercon to commemorate and discuss this anniversary, I was happy to accept. In the brief for the panel, we were encouraged to consider ‘the influence of the award, the story the list of previous winners has to tell about SF in the UK, and how the award’s place in the field has changed over time’. A lot to think about then, and in making my own mental preparations for the panel I began by asking myself, prior to examining the documentary evidence in any way, how I thought the Clarke had evolved over time, what kind of changes I thought I’d see reflected, were I to look at the figures.

The biggest change I thought I was going to see was an increasing representation of so-called literary SF – that is, science fiction written by writers normally considered to be part of the literary mainstream, or published by non-genre imprints – among the shortlists as we approached the present day. When Margaret Atwood first won the Clarke Award back in 1987, her publisher, Faber & Faber, weren’t at all keen to have The Handmaid’s Tale entered for the award in the first place. Atwood herself seemed conflicted about what SF actually was and whether or not she wrote it, and there was a more than minor backlash against Atwood’s win amongst critics, fans, and even some of the judges. Compare that with this year, when Margaret Atwood attends the awards ceremony for The Kitschies wearing a tentacle-themed hair ornament, when more mainstream writers than ever before are experimenting with science fictional tropes and ideas they wouldn’t have been seen dead near thirty years ago, when science fiction has burst out of the geek ghetto to become mainstream entertainment. Last year’s Clarke Award was won by Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an almost universally popular novel from a devoutly literary imprint (Picador) and that was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Such a seismic shift in attitudes would surely be backed up by statistics.

As regards the question of gender and ethnic diversity, I felt less sure. Memory alone was telling me that the number of shortlistees from minority and non-Anglophone backgrounds has been vanishingly few. As for gender parity, I had the feeling that in spite of much talk and bluster on the subject, things hadn’t changed all that much on the ground. I had the idea in my mind that in terms of more diverse representation, the Clarke was lagging far behind mainstream literary prizes such as the Booker and the Costa, which had, I felt, begun to be more inclusive from way back.

What I actually discovered when I looked at the statistics was that of the twenty-nine winners to date, just six (Margaret Atwood, George Turner, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, Jane Rogers and Emily St John Mandel) have been drawn from the literary mainstream. Perhaps even more surprising is the spread. I set out thinking the number of shortlisted books from mainstream imprints would have increased particularly during the past decade – the decade of popular genre-busting novels like Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Never Let Me Go, all of which were shortlisted for the Clarke. Whereas in fact the number of non-genre SF shortlistees has remained pretty consistent and pretty low, with no more than one or at the most two mainstream titles making it to the shortlist in any given year (a bias strikingly reaffirmed in this year’s selection, possibly the most disappointingly core genre shortlist of the decade so far and certainly since 2012). The two exceptions to this rule came in 2008 and 2013, when a fifty-fifty split between genre and mainstream imprints brought forth a predictable spate of discontented rumblings from the genre heartlands. (Just to be clear: of course Ian McDonald’s Brasyl was an egregious omission. Personally I think it’s egregious and downright weird that, as one of the most technically adroit and imaginatively fecund SF writers currently working, McDonald hasn’t so far won the Clarke. But that doesn’t mean that Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army voted best science fiction novel by a woman of its decade by readers of Torque Control – should be looked at askance as some kind of dangerous infiltrator just because it happens to be published by Faber & Faber.)

So while the boundaries are pushed just about far enough to satisfy the iconoclasts, the Clarke remains determinedly an award of the genre heartlands, often drawing again and again from the same smallish pool of well established writers (of all the writers ever shortlisted for the Clarke, 29 have placed twice or more). This could in its turn have some bearing on the issue of gender parity, which has remained decidedly skewed in favour of men. While 11 out of 29 winners have been women (12 if you count Pat Cadigan’s double), from a total of 181 possible shortlist places over the 29 years, just 51 have been occupied by women. In only 5 years (1993, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2015) was gender parity achieved on the shortlist, and I was particularly shocked by the number of years – 10 – in which only one woman was shortlisted.

There has never been a year when the number of women on the Clarke Award shortlist has exceeded the number of men.

Turning to the issue of ethnic diversity, the statistics are predictably embarrassing. Out of 181 shortlist places, just 7 have been filled by writers who are black, Asian, minority ethnic or from non-Anglophone backgrounds. This figure speaks for itself: the Clarke Award’s demographic continues to be mostly white and mostly male.

Following up on my theory that the Booker Prize would show greater diversity in terms of race and gender, I was neither wholly right nor completely wrong. In terms of ethnic spread, the Booker does a little better than the Clarke in that of the 171 shortlist places available between 1987 and 2015 (the same period as the Clarke Award’s existence, in other words) 33 were filled by black, Asian and other minority writers, more if you count multiple nominations for Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rohinton Mistry. It’s worth bearing in mind that as a fraction of the whole this is only about one fifth, and when it comes to gender parity the results are hardly inspiring. Out of 29 winners, just nine have been women (10 if you count Hilary Mantel’s two wins), and as with the Clarke, the spread of shortlistees displays a wide disparity. Of the 171 shortlist places, just sixty were filled by women. While gender parity on the Booker shortlist has been achieved six times (in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2009, 2012) and with women even exceeding the number of men on three subsequent occasions (2003, 2006 and 2013) this is counterbalanced by the eight years (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2011) in which only one woman appeared on the shortlist.

It would appear that the Booker Prize is almost equally conservative in terms of diversity as the Clarke. This doesn’t reflect well on either, but it does at least prove, in a backhanded way, that the Clarke isn’t as hidebound as it could have been.

This is not to level accusations of bias at the Clarke as an institution or at its jurors. The problems of systemic bias begin much further back, at the point of entry to the industry and even before that. The Clarke submissions list is the end point, the point at which we see the results of such bias at work, and of course the judges can only judge the books that are submitted – for a further example, see the recent controversy surrounding the all-white line-up for World Book Night. The problems experienced by women, people from working class backgrounds, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and other marginalised communities attempting to enter the literary field will come from above and from below and work in circular motion. For anyone still unsure of why this matters, I would advise them to begin by reading a recent piece by the translator and publisher Deborah Smith. Her insights into how diversity actively promotes literary excellence are astute, timely, and succinctly worded and I cannot recommend her article highly enough. For science fiction readers, writers, critics and Clarke jurors on the ground, I would suggest the main task currently is to make ourselves aware of the situation and to take notice of what writers from disadvantaged communities are saying. For British science fiction, a more diverse landscape of literary works is pretty much essential for the evolution and continuing health and relevance of the genre. The Britain we inhabit now is not the Britain of the 1950s, nor even the Britain of the 1970s New Wave. We need to see the changes that are happening in reality reflected in the literature we produce and consume, which means hearing voices and opinions from all sections of our society. A retrospective SF is a fossilized genre is a dead literature. If I am excited by writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Sunjeev Sahota and Xiaolu Guo within the literary mainstream, I desperately want to see their equivalents in British science fiction, and by extension on the Clarke Award shortlist.

Which then brings us on to the question: what is the Clarke Award for and who is it aimed at? On the face of it, the answer is simple: the rules of the Clarke as laid down by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Award’s founder, and the committee that originally set up the award stated that the ACCA should be awarded to ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’, the aim being to promote science fiction to a wider public, and to reward excellence within its remit. So far, so uncontroversial. But anyone who has had anything to do with the science fiction community will know that science fiction fans – not to mention writers and critics – thrive on controversy (some might call it nit-picking) and habitually find it more or less impossible to agree amongst themselves on what constitutes science fiction, let alone best.

From the moment the award was inducted, there was in-fighting between various sections of the community as to which novels and which writers should be voted on to the shortlist. In the run-up to our Eastercon panel, the critic Edward James shared with us a highly informative essay he wrote as a contribution to the volume Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy (eds Gary Westfahl/George Slusser Greenwood Press 2002), ‘The Arthur C. Clarke Award and its Reception in Britain’, describing, amongst other things, his experiences as the Award’s first administrator:

“Should the Award go to a work which the judges recognise to be solidly within the science fiction tradition, which would no doubt be applauded by SF fans, but received blankly by an uninterested world? Or should the Award associate itself with a work that the outside world would actually recognise, to increase the standing of science fiction by hanging on the coat-tails of recognised Literature?”

James writes, thus posing the question that has divided juries and characterised the discussion around the award for the whole of its run. In 1987 the battle seems to have been between those rooting for Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and those insisting that Samuel R. Delany should take the award for Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a ‘proper’ science fiction work from an acknowledged master of the genre. “It was not an auspicious start to the Award,” James continues. “In retrospect, The Handmaid’s Tale was the wrong book.” This written in 2002, before Atwood wrote her Maddadam trilogy and long before she turned up in London wearing a tentacle on her head. Whilst admitting that The Handmaid’s Tale was ‘a very good book’, James positioned himself firmly in the Delany camp at the time and seems not to have substantially changed his opinion by the time he wrote his article fifteen years later.

A similar scandal rocked the Clarke just six years later in 1993, when the judges decided to exclude Karen Joy Fowler’s now classic Sarah Canary from the shortlist on the grounds that it was ‘not science fiction’, then went on to compound the controversy still further by eventually awarding the prize to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass, another work from a literary publisher that was deemed unworthy of the award by some sections of the SF community: Piercy was not British, and moreover she was already a successful mainstream writer who did not need the prize money or the publicity. The critic and former Clarke judge (part of the jury that awarded the prize to Atwood, in fact) John Clute threw himself into the fray, declaring that ‘the decision was so bad my ears must have deceived me’:

Body of Glass fatally gives off that gingerly feel one often detects when a mainstream author is manipulating SF devices and scenarios to illuminate her own concerns.”

Boo, hiss. Emotion, subjective viewpoint and personal odyssey in science fiction, whatever next?? I don’t think Clute would mind me having a bit of a dig here, most especially since he has recanted these vows more or less completely in the meantime, becoming as he is now a veritable mainstay of the inclusive camp. But the above quote is inestimably useful as an illustration of core science fiction ideology, which persists in this exact formulation to this day and to this hour. If Clute has moderated his approach, there are plenty who haven’t, and so the war rages on.

The most notable Clarke meltdown of the current decade must belong to 2012, remembered in some quarters as Priestgate. The most immediate and lasting effect of Priest’s polemic – something that was often overlooked in the welter of counter-rhetoric surrounding it – was that it attracted a huge amount of attention for the award. Indeed it could be argued that Christopher Priest’s essay ‘Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3’, bemoaning the quality of the 2012 shortlist in general and the alleged incompetence of the jury in particular was largely responsible for the wave of interest and popularity the Clarke began to enjoy in the mainstream press. The forthrightness of Priest’s pronouncement was treated as shocking in some quarters, and came in for considerable criticism as a result. Nonetheless, anyone reading his essay today will see that his analysis of the books remains astutely on point, and whilst no blame should be attached to individual judges – the idea of a word as strong as ‘blame’ being associated with something as ephemeral and subjective as the shortlist for a literary prize is faintly ridiculous in any case – the fact remains that the 2012 Clarke shortlist could be held up as one of the most potent examples of what can happen when the judging panel has no clear or united vision of what they are looking for – of what is ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’. The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading, and it was hardly an act of literary terrorism for Priest to point that out. I might add that if only all Clarke shortlists generated polemic this sophisticated, this concerned with literary values and the inherent potential of science fiction to be radical and progressive (as opposed to retrograde and derivative) our awareness of what the field is doing, not to mention the field itself, would be mightily the better for it.

In all fairness to the jury, it would not be difficult to mount a similar tale of woe for any year – there’s not a single literary award shortlist that doesn’t sport at least one glaring omission or freakish inclusion. The judges are only human, after all, and each will come to the table replete with their own prejudices, preconceptions, and hard-wired preferences. Take a look at this fascinating retrospective by Booker Prize jurors, and you’ll quickly see that the chances of any of them being persuaded out of their pre-formed opinions is questionable, to say the least. Unless judges are lucky enough to find themselves sitting on a jury of uncannily like minds, the shortlist for any prize, not to mention the winning entry, will continue to be something of a lottery, the hard-won result of in-fighting, barely suppressed professional rivalries, occasionally pure cussedness. Speaking for myself, the science fiction I admire most could be categorised as a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements. I am the kind of reader and writer who believes that the old kind of space fiction – intergalactic empires and people setting off in rockets to conquer the stars with no more than a tangential connection to lived or indeed scientific reality – is usually not worth bothering with in critical terms, that the core SF tropes are only interesting as literature if they are subverted to such an extent as to make something entirely different. I happen to believe that when placed next to the linguistic and metaphysical glory that is M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, something like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, though competently executed and entertaining on its own terms is revealed starkly for what it is: linguistically unspectacular, thematically redundant and completely lacking in literary irony.

When Edward James says in his paper that he considers Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to be one of the greatest works of science fiction so far written, I would agree with him heartily. When he insists that Delany’s work would be ‘largely impenetrable to outsiders’ – outsiders who have not been ‘initiated’ into the shorthand, language and conceptual frameworks of science fiction, I would beg to differ. For me, Delany is not just a great science fiction writer, he is a great writer full stop, and SIMPLGOS would be no more difficult for the general reader than any other work of modernist or postmodernist literature. It is – like Woolf or Beckett or Foster Wallace – simply a text that requires a modicum of concentration. Truly great science fiction – that is, science fiction that pays attention to itself in terms of literary values – needs no special pleading. Indeed I would go a lot further than this. I would suggest that if a work of science fiction cannot stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.

I am aware that this view is contentious. I know there will be many who disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place, and I respect that. I am even prepared to admit they may have a point. I want the old guard to go on fighting because debate is the lifeblood of culture and because it is vitally important that the critical conversation around the Clarke Award be revitalised and strengthened. For if there is a threat to the continuing success and popularity of the Clarke Award, it seems to me that the danger lies in critical apathy. In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied, culminating in a situation where last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.

At least a part of the problem resides in the fact that there is no recognised online ‘hub’ for British SF. For a number of years (from 2009 when the submissions list first started to be released), the submissions list was announced via the BSFA/Vector blog, Torque Control, where lively, informed discussions of many critical and ideological aspects of SF took place under the dedicated, engaged stewardship of Niall Harrison. In 2009, the post announcing the Clarke submissions list generated 112 comments, mainly debating the eventual shortlist and offering guesses. The following year saw an almost equal number of comments and shortlist guesses, surely a sign that interest surrounding the award was in rude health.

With the departure of Niall Harrison to take up the post of editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, the Torque Control blog became a graveyard almost overnight. Since 2013, the submissions list has been put out to tender, firstly at SFX, which has always been a media rather than a literary publication, and this year at Medium, a major online publishing platform to be sure but one that has little to no direct connection with the British science fiction community. To date, the Clarke submissions post has generated precisely three comments, only one of which could be counted as discussion of the books or possible shortlist.

When you compare this lacklustre response with the proliferation of enthusiastic and knowledgeable blogs, shadow-panels and discussion forums associated with mainstream literary prizes such as the Man Booker International, the Baileys or the Booker itself it looks pretty pathetic, especially given that it always used to be the other way around.

One of the issues that was discussed on the Clarke anniversary panel was the absence – for two years in a row now – of the traditional ‘Not the Clarke Award’ discussion from the Eastercon programme. This lively and popular item in which panellists discuss the shortlisted books in the manner of a shadow award jury has always been a crowd-puller, and in the past the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist has always been timed to allow for it to take place. In 2015 and 2016 the date set for the announcement of the shortlist has taken no account of Eastercon. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the Eastercon membership represents anything approaching the whole of the British science fiction constituency, this decision to discount it entirely does appear to be yet another missed opportunity for informed critical appreciation of the Clarke Award, as well as showing a general lack of consideration for the fanbase. Even if it does not represent the whole of the constituency, Eastercon probably does qualify as the largest gathering of BSFA members in one place during any given year. With the BSFA as one of the three organisations at the constitutional heart of the Clarke Award this surely has to count for something. Such a slap in the face for fandom might be easier to tolerate were there a genuine reason for the change. With the lack of transparency around this question currently in force, these decisions – like the earlier decision to take the submissions announcement away from Torque Control – appear completely random and pointless, not to say actively deleterious.

Another issue raised by the panel was the question of a longlist. There can be absolutely no doubt that the decision taken in 2001 by the organisers of the Booker Prize to start publishing a longlist has been of immense value in extending and intensifying the discussion around both the prize itself and literary fiction in general. The reasons for this – more books to discuss over a longer time period – should be obvious to anyone. To my mind at least it would seem equally obvious that the idea of introducing a longlist to the Clarke Award calendar is pretty much a no-brainer. In the brief discussion on Twitter (March 27th) that followed this year’s Eastercon panel, the award’s director Tom Hunter had this to say on the subject of introducing a longlist stage to the award:

I prefer our full submissions list to a longlist. If we had more time/resource I would personally prefer to do more of something else than just more lists. For me a longlist doesn’t really create anything new, just an interim list, and it’s a big extra task to create for little return.

When asked by SF critic, blogger and previous Clarke Award juror Martin Petto why we can’t have both – it having been made clear during the panel by the current chairman of the Clarke jury Andrew M. Butler that far from it being a ‘big extra task to create’, the judges are already in the habit of drawing up their own unofficial longlist for the purposes of discussion in any case – Hunter responded:

But it’s not a longlist, it’s a discussion list. Longlist implies these are best not the ones we’re still talking about.

Quite apart from the problem presented by Hunter’s apparent underestimation of a longlist’s potential in terms of the discussion and promotion of a wider pool of books and writers, it would seem logical to argue that ‘these are [the books] we’re still talking about’ precisely because these are the ones we think are ‘best’ (by whatever definition arrived at by individual jurors) at that stage. Why else would be jury be discussing them? Hunter’s argument, such that it is, seems like something of a double negative.

On the demise of Torque Control as a forum for discussion, Tom Hunter had this to add (March 29th):

[The BSFA site] is a hub I’d say, but no matter how many there are people always seem to want more. Was Torque Control ever really main BSFA product? More good initiative by a member [Niall Harrison] now doing great stuff for Strange Horizons. It was a product formed around a person thus hard to replicate even if you wanted to. And thus BSFA shouldn’t try to replicate that old energy even if people miss Torque Control as a hub. It was what, eight years ago it was in its prime? Can’t help think things change.

Things change, indeed. And I would venture that it is exactly this kind of complacency (not to mention the inappropriate use of the word ‘product’) that makes them change for the worse. More proactive ways of harnessing greater critical involvement in the award might include instituting a discussion page at the Arthur C. Clarke Award website as a host platform for commissioned reviews and critical articles, roundtable debates of science fiction and its evolution as a literature, interviews with nominees and even – gasp – the initial announcement of the submissions list. At least then people would have a logical place to congregate. (Who knows – we might even decide to call it a hub…)

The current management of the Arthur C. Clarke Award appears to have forgotten that mere publicity is not the same as having a critical hinterland, that bland puff pieces and tick-box number-crunching are not the same as a discussion about literary values, that claiming any given shortlist as ‘great’, ‘exciting’ or even ‘diverse’ is shallow and pointless when that claim is not backed up with more rigorous discourse about the merits of the novels shortlisted and what exactly constitutes ‘great’ or ‘exciting’ or ‘diverse’. For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to survive as the beloved and respected and valuable institution it avowedly is, we need passionate critical engagement, we need personal involvement over a wide demographic. We need readers to feel excited by the idea of discovering new books, excited enough to want to talk about them afterwards. To argue about what is best and what is science fiction.

(NB: A significant portion of this essay was drafted prior to Eastercon. Any statistics quoted or referred to therefore do not include this year’s recently announced Clarke Award shortlist.)

#weird2016: Red Shift by Alan Garner

red shift garnerThe motorway roared silently. Birds skittered the water in flight to more distant reeds, and the iron water lay again, flat light reflecting no sky. The caravans and the birches. Tom.

Sometimes you read a novel that generates such a personal response – that feels so profoundly, so intimately yours – it’s hard to articulate. It’s a feeling of blessed serendipity, like stumbling across something in the road, something half-buried in dirt, and discovering it’s that treasured thing you lost some years before and thought never to see again.

As a reader and as a writer, these are the moments you chase but can never predict.

All of this happened, in this case, because of something that did not happen. When I was asked if I’d like to be on a panel at Eastercon discussing the landscapes of Alan Garner’s fiction. I regretfully had to decline, stating that aside from stumbling upon and loving The Owl Service – both book and TV series – when I was twelve, I hadn’t read Garner since, and really didn’t know his work except in outline. Which of course immediately set me thinking: why didn’t I, when Garner’s oeuvre, with its emphasis on landscape and myth, lies so close to a vital seam of my own literary interests?

It seemed like a major oversight to me. And so later that day, I purchased the eBook of Garner’s Red Shift, widely thought to be the cornerstone of his work and of his thinking. We happened to be travelling to London the following day, which gave me four hours’ worth of train journey in which to read the novel more or less uninterrupted, which I think is how this extraordinary book should ideally be encountered.  At a little under 200 pages, it is not a long novel. So when you learn that it was six years in the making, you might feel surprised – until you begin to experience it, and realise how intact it is, how entire unto itself, how every word contracted into this interweaving, this rope-hard tapestry, has been personally chosen and considered, how this novel – deceptively simple on the page – truly is like that found thing in the road, that axe head: clodded with dirt yet pristine, hard, like the ages, like the granite fundament of the island that inspired it.

A cursory reading of Red Shift might leave you with the impression that in its modern sections especially it is dated. It is hard to imagine many older teenagers these days getting so hung up on what their parents think, or becoming mired in ideas of sex as being sordid or sinful. Yet read – persist – and you will find there is something so heartrending, so universal in what Jan and Tom experience that it still works, in spite of its awkwardness or even because of it. It is interesting, too, that the women in Garner’s story are as powerful as the men, if not more so. It is Jan, in the end, who is able to make the transition from child to adult, a transition Tom struggles with until the end.

I found the novel’s evocation of the 1970s particularly resonant.  The sequence where Tom and Jan first discover the road to Barthomley, walking out across the railway sidings at Crewe seemed, to me, like the summer of 1976 itself: instantaneously mythical, a hush in time, a touchstone memory:

They walked through undulating country, golden with light from the cold sun. 

“That’s where I’d like to try for, one day,” said Jan. “I see it from the train, and then I know you’re near. It looks like a lonely old man sitting up there.”

“We’ll go,” said Tom. “But I doubt it’ll be today, unless you feel like running.”

“Is it a castle?”

“A folly. Not real. It’s called Mow Cop.”

“I like mountains. Can we go, even if it is only a folly?”

“Sure, I said. But how about something closer for today?”

Across the fields a red sandstone church tower stood from a valley. The landscape was quiet, scattered farms of black timber, and the lane leading towards the church. 

It is their Grand Meulnes moment, instantly in decline, like radioactive half-life, from the second it is exposed to the light.

It says everything about Garner’s skill in imagining, that the novel’s strands from earlier timelines – one set in Roman Britain, one set during the English Civil War – often and increasingly appear to be running contemporaneously with the modern day section. As the novel nears its end, these time-jumps – seamless, unannounced and unaccounted-for – can occur several times in a single page. The passages describing the massacre at Barthomley, in their terrifying understatement, are a masterclass of literary economy.

What is most modern about this novel – what makes it a work of modernism – is that it offers no explanation for itself, no long-winded exposition of what is happening. We must run to catch up, to stay level. We must enter into the spirit of this thing, not caring too much if there are moments when we doubt our understanding of what is going on.

And even as Red Shift eschews objective realism in favour of a more subjective brand of expressionism, still it retains the rough-hewn, adze-sharpened, square-buttressed granite persistence of the mediaeval. Like the sinuously evolving ballads of British folklore, its abiding loyalty is to the land. We pass through it, before passing it on.

It is with eerie synchronicity that I came to Red Shift immediately after life writer constantinereading David Constantine’s acutely felt second novel The Life Writer, which shares a similar relationship with land not a million miles away from Barthomley church. It may even be that reading the Constantine, which feels intuitively closer to my own practice – Red Shift is mainly dialogue, which I don’t write much of; The Life Writer is mainly internalised reflection, which I do – actively prepared me in some way for reading the Garner.

However and whatever has happened, it feels significant for me as a writer in a way I did not anticipate.

*

Sadly, we didn’t arrive at Eastercon until gone 5.30 on the Friday, so it was too late for me to attend the Alan Garner panel even as a spectator. But what we were able to do instead, on our way back from Scotland – we spent a week in the Highlands immediately following Eastercon – was stop off at the places where the key action of Red Shift takes place. It had been raining for most of the morning, but as we drove into Cheshire the weather changed, flooding the countryside with evening sunshine. The landscape felt utterly unchanged from how it had appeared to me as I read about it in the novel. I was thrilled to the bone.

The White Lion, Barthomley

The White Lion, Barthomley

St Bertoline's Church, Barthomley

St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley

The Folly at Mow Cop

The Folly at Mow Cop

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.

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!

And they’re off! Clarke Award submissions 2016

So – we now know that the total number of books submitted for this year’s Clarke Award was 113. You will find the full list here, together with some analysis of the figures. Personally I think it would be equally interesting and relevant, certainly in literary terms, to track the percentage of genre versus mainstream imprints. I find it fascinating to look at how far and how successfully science fiction is permeating the literary mainstream, and the effect this may be having – or not – on the genre heartlands.

With this in mind, I want to focus, firstly, on those books that immediately leap out as being the most interesting contenders for me personally – a personal longlist, if you like:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)

Acts of the Assassins – Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind – Anne Charnock

If Then – Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot)

Speak – Louisa Hall (Orbit)

Wake – Elizabeth Knox (Corsair)

Dark Star – Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)

Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber)

SNUFF – Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)

The Dead Lands – Benjamin Percy (Hodder)

The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

The Shore – Sara Taylor (Heinemann)

The Weightless World – Anthony Trevelyan (Galley Beggar)

Find Me – Laura Van Den Berg (Del Rey)

The Fifth Dimension – Martin Vopenka (Barbican)

The Swan Book – Alexis Wright (Constable)

That’s eighteen books – enough to make three complete shortlists, in other words. Add to those the following – books that wouldn’t necessarily come top of my own reading list, but solidly worthy contenders that will almost certainly be featuring in any upcoming discussions among the judges:

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)

Mother of Eden – Chris Beckett (Corvus)

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder)

The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz)

Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie (Orbit)

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)

The Galaxy Game – Karen Lord (JFB)

Something Coming Through – Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Luna: New Moon – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)

Planetfall – Emma Newman (Roc)

Touch – Claire North (Orbit)

Crashing Heaven – Al Robertson (Gollancz)

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

Glorious Angels – Justina Robson (Gollancz)

Regeneration – Stephanie Saulter (JFB)

The Promise of the Child – Tom Toner (Gollancz)

The Just City – Jo Walton (Corsair)

…and that gives us another eighteen. Which is thirty-six books in all, six shortlists’ worth, and a solid third of the overall number of submissions. For anyone interested in odd statistics of my own, I’ve been breaking down the shortlist in this way for about five years now and the percentage of what I think of as credible contenders has always been roughly the same. Anyway, I feel fairly confident in predicting that our winner is hiding amongst this lot somewhere.

Moving on to shortlist guesses. First off, my own personal choices – the books I would choose (as of this moment and not having read everything) if I were sole judge and jury:

ACTS OF THE ASSASSINS – Richard Beard. WHY? Philip Hensher liked this and I’ve seen several other people whose opinion I trust saying good things about it, too. I read the Kindle preview and found the style, approach and form immediately compelling. I felt eager for more, both of this book and from this writer.

SLEEPING EMBERS OF AN ORDINARY MIND – Anne Charnock. WHY? Charnock employs speculative ideas in a subtle and sensitive interweaving of three interconnected narratives. Almost like a mini Cloud Atlas, Sleeping Embers demonstrates how lives and futures remain connected, even at a distance of hundreds of years. It is a beautiful book and Charnock is a writer of real merit.

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because I consider this to be one of the most complex and important works of British science fiction to have appeared in recent years.

THE SHORE – Sara Taylor. WHY? Because this is a superb work of literature from a seriously talented new writer. Because I loved this book unreservedly and still think about it often. Because the speculative elements are subtle and sensitively handled (one of the most interesting post-apocalyptic endings I’ve read). Because I’m already eager to read it again, less than a year after first encountering it. Because it’s a wonderful book in every way.

FIND ME – Laura Van Den Berg. WHY? This novel starts out reading like a conventional post-apocalyptic story but gradually morphs into something quite different: a meditation on outsider status and contemporary America that is powerful and moving. I loved the characters. I loved the weirdness. I loved the evocation of depleted landscapes.

THE SWAN BOOK – Alexis Wright. WHY? Because this is an important book from an important writer. Wright’s use of language is extraordinary. The Swan Book is speculative in every sense of the word. Although it was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize in its native Australia, it hasn’t received half the attention it should have here in the UK, especially within genre circles.

There’s no way the actual shortlist is going to look like that, obviously, not least because the actual Clarke jury is made up of five people, not one, and each with their various tastes and priorities coming into play. We know only too well that no one person’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ in science fiction is the same as another’s, and with this in mind, I’m going to hazard a guess of how the shortlist – revealed April 27th – might realistically line up (again with the proviso that I have not read all the books):

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because, seriously, if this book doesn’t make the shortlist there’s something amiss.

SPEAK – Louisa Hall. WHY? I’ve not read this yet but it looks wonderfully interesting and I’m hoping the judges will put it forward.

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT – Dave Hutchinson. WHY? Already shortlisted for the Kitschies, the second instalment of Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is easily as weird, interesting and distinctive as the first. It’s good to see Hutchinson beginning to attain his rightful place within British science fiction, and I think there’s a good chance that Europe at Midnight will follow in the footsteps of its predecessor Europe in Autumn, thus landing him on the shortlist for a second year running.

THE THING ITSELF – Adam Roberts. WHY? Again, I haven’t read this yet but the premise is fantastic and I’ve heard almost unanimous praise for it among critics I respect. I was pleased to see it make the Kitschies shortlist and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it here, too.

AURORA – Kim Stanley Robinson. WHY? This book has garnered vast swathes of effusive outpourings among core SF readers, and Stan Robinson is one of the best stylists among core SF writers. This novel seems to appeal to most sections of the SF community on one way or another and I’d be amazed if it didn’t feature.

GLORIOUS ANGELS – Justina Robson. WHY? I started this, got about a third of the way through. Not really my thing, but I can see that it’s a complex, thoughtful and interesting novel and I think those judges who lean further towards core SF than I do will better appreciate its qualities. I have a hunch that this could be Robson’s year.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what actually surfaces – but then, that is the case every year, especially when all our best guesses are confounded…

Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe

between each breath.thorpeJack Middleton is a modernist classical composer and a fairly successful one. Arising from humble beginnings, he finds himself married to beautiful heiress Milly, living in a big house in Hampstead with as many lucrative commissions as he cares to accept. His life is thrown into turmoil when he encounters Kaja, a young student working in a cafe in Tallinn. He compartmentalises the encounter as a romantic interlude, affecting at the time but irrelevant to the main course of his life. But when this past indiscretion comes back to haunt him, the faultlines in his perfect existence begin to reveal themselves.

*

My heart thumped in my ears, but not from the exercise. I knew, somehow, as I pushed the cafe door’s loose handle down (it was a nicely old-fashioned French-style door), that I was doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong turn. But it excited me too because at some level it was a recognition that I was freer than I’d ever realised. (p 40)

Jack Middleton is the classic kind of English middle class sexist – the kind that has no idea that he is one. Both Milly and Kaja are made to look subtly ridiculous – Milly because she’s rich, ducks out of Oxford without getting her degree, and dresses up like Cleopatra whilst working to aid Palestinian refugees, Kaja by being made to look ten years younger than she is, by – in spite of her sexual allure – being made to seem naive and inexperienced in terms of relationships, by being foreign. Both women are gifted with intellectual capacities just sufficient to intrigue and captivate and surprise our ennui-laden hero, but never sufficient to outclass or scare him. Jack seems to have a Lawrence Durrell approach to women that sanctifies and patronises at the same time. It is intensely wearying.

Opening a book like this is always disconcerting. Is Thorpe aware of what Jack is like, or not? Is he incapable of writing women as equal human beings, or is he portraying them through Jack’s entitled eyes? In spite of any misgivings, I cannot help noticing that this is the best written book I’ve read since Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

The woman seemed to have a wind-billowing tent for a dress and something on her head, but she was in silhouette and the moonlight behind her was dimmer, now. She was crying. He couldn’t hear her crying but he knew she was because the whole dark room thrilled with it: the walls were – to put it in the way he was feeling it (almost as a visual thing) – running with her tears. There was nothing he could do: he knew it was a ghost, a spectral presence left over from some far-off time, like a means to an end that never came. He lay there looking at her and absorbing her sorrow. He felt he was helping her, simply by sharing the burden. (p 249)

Sudden irruption of the fantastic in a completely matter-of-fact way. There is no doubt here that the ghost is real, that Jack is seeing it. The book continues to be a mystery. Jack is the most selfish and entitled hero, squandering his talent in laziness and an ineffectual resentment of nothing very much. He has precisely nothing to say about music, his intellectual curiosity drowned in the ennui that comes from having too much and feeling vaguely guilty about it but not guilty enough to get off his arse and do better. And yet Between Each Breath is – almost unwittingly – one of the most accurate commentaries on turn-of-the-century Britain I’ve read, a pitch-perfect capture of a particular London milieu, the dire passivity of the middle classes. It chills because it’s so real. What to do? Thorpe’s writing is of a higher quality than anything McEwan has written since Enduring Love.

Jack was impressed by her history. She had somehow seen more than him. He couldn’t imagine it. (p 300) 

But Jack has seen NOTHING – and how can he believe even for a moment that he has? The way he patronises Kaja, even in his mind – for speaking English with a foreign accent, basically – is breathtakingly awful.

I’m paying for this too dearly. All I did was score with her. (p 300)

Makes me think of the review by Tibor Fischer in which he says that Thorpe ‘conjures up a whiff of the bunny boiler around Kaja’ and wonder if we’re still, genuinely in a situation where a woman’s aggrieved reaction to being lied to, patronised and emotionally deceived can be routinely described in this way. I admire Tibor Fischer and Adam Mars Jones tremendously both as writers and reviewers but really, their criticism of this novel does not even touch on these aspects and I find it lacking because of that. Are they both too immured within the social stratum Thorpe describes to see it objectively?

As he walked up the three flights to his eyrie, he thought of Kaja quoting Flaubert in French, his remark about the bracken caught in the stirrup. He was a complete pseud: he knew sod all about literature, French or otherwise. Or about much else.

All he knew about was music. In a sort of swollen, over-developed way. Parallel to life. Its own world. Like maths. 

But birds made music, didn’t they? (p 343)

Thorpe’s purpose begins to come clear as Jack’s world begins to fall apart. The novel is about the fundamental opposition between the world of capital and acquisition we inhabit, and the imperatives of art, and real thought. The latter is all but impossible in the context of the former. Jack has believed he can have both. He is being shown otherwise. Does he really love Milly, or the world that Milly has granted him access to? He is about to find out.

The drips in her arm, the bruises they made, the saline solution and waste bags around her like her innards pulled out on wires: he felt deadened to it all, to the horror of it. She’d once been a shop floor supervisor in a sausage factory, bustling about, giving orders, laughing and scolding in a white coat with a clipboard and beehive hairdo, looking like a doctor. He had to remember this. (p 349)

In his portrayal of Jack’s parents, and Jack’s mother’s decline and death, Thorpe captures with searing intensity the daily realities of a Britain – in contrast with the ludicrous excesses tussled over by sections of the capital – very much in decline. Donald and Moyna are deprived without knowing precisely how they are deprived. They are stoic, undemanding, ignorant, kind, casually, thoughtlessly racist, backward-looking, both grounded and lost. They soldier on until they absolutely cannot take another step. As a portrait of England this is testing and awful and achingly sad and real. This is everything Jack was desperate to escape – he loves his parents, he can never explain. But what has he escaped to?

As usual, despite flicking through his Selected Baudrillard beforehand in search of some killer phrase for any occasion, he found the others wittier and more intellectual, freighted with arcane, encyclopaedic knowledge about the history of music. Even the young Abigail Staunton defied her Top Shop look and sparkled with references to the Gerber Variable Scale, imperialist assumptions and her recent trip to Lebanon. Above all, they knew what they were doing when they composed. His reference to Shostakovich was mangled by nerves. If he’d been asked to spell him, he’d probably have got it wrong. (p 387)

Fascinating, how Thorpe has made Jack like this on purpose – ‘the Ulysses of subtopia’. Living with his dad in Hayes after his mother’s death, he has come full circle. ‘He would have to blow himself to smithereens and start again.’

And through all this the traffic moved steadily and with a sinuous heaped motion onwards towards no discernible place and for no discernible reason. Jack saw this through the spittled windscreen, or from the squeezed pavements of Hayes, and heard a harp. He had never heard a harp play what he was hearing it playing. It was playing the greyness of England. It was playing this weather. It was playing this English reality of ashen, utterly leaden futility. Of spoliation. Of flag-fluttering retail parks and commercial estates spread in a cancerous ring around every town. Of people with too much money and the people they’d taken it from, who no one cared a hoot about. Of the zillions that went into scuttling the green land and the clear air that must have existed once, not all that long a time ago. (p 391)

Brilliant, brilliant lines. Why do all the reviews of this book seem to concentrate on categorising it as a ‘reprise of the Hampstead novel’? In fact it is something far bleaker, far more serious, far more important. Thorpe is angry but it’s a very British, very embedded anger. What Thorpe is saying with this book does fire rage in me, and inspiration too.

Jack’s piece for St George’s Day is called ‘Grey Days’ – a complete shredding and reimagining of his former practice, which imposed all those ludicrous faux-modernist titles upon empty work.

On p 393, Jack finds himself. He finds the place he should always have started from. Everything Thorpe intended with this novel is revealed. And it is very, very good.

‘You know, it was like we…us two…we coincidenced,’ she said. (p 415)

Is that what it is? The stark reality of this story is about the necessity of Jack and Kaja meeting, in order that Jaan, who is exceptional, will be born? Jack, meddling once again in something he cannot understand, indirectly brings about a tragedy. Life never stands still. There is no happy conclusion – just the march of history.

I would love to know from Thorpe: at which stage in his writing did he decide to write that prologue?

*

I picked up this book because I’d been thinking about Adam Thorpe’s first novel Ulverton, the way it is structured, its intimate relationship with history and with the English landscape. I was drawn to Between Each Breath because it is a ‘music novel’, an area of literature I am irredeemably pulled towards and that feels particularly relevant to me now because of work I’m planning. As it turns out, music specifically has less importance for this novel than the idea of art – and of making art – in general. I was prepared to find this frustrating but it turned out not to matter. Between Each Breath is one of the most absorbing, skilfully worked and finally moving novels I’ve read in quite a while.

Thorpe plays a long game – this novel does not give up its secrets or its intent in five minutes, or even the first three hundred pages. But persistence is rewarded, and intensely so. This novel has more to say about the way we live now than so many of those insipid and rather smug ‘zeitgeist’ novels that have been incessantly and needlessly discussed in the broadsheet review columns – Ian McEwan’s pompous Saturday, for example, or Martin Amis’s ludicrous misfire Lionel Asbo. Thorpe’s is the kind of fiction that does so much more than take a sideswipe at newspaper headlines from a comfy armchair. It is a sustained act of imagining, and has true purpose. In every sense of the word, it is a great English novel.

You can read a superb interview with Adam Thorpe here.

#weird 2016: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New for spring…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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