Category Archives: books

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (1960)

The first piece of fiction I ever read by Algis Budrys was his 1958 short story ‘The Edge of the Sea’. My memory was that I’d encountered it as part of Brian Aldiss’s Penguin Science Fiction anthology, but looking down the table of contents I see this is not so: Budrys’s contribution to that anthology is the better-known ‘The End of Summer’, a story I also loved, but that did not perplex and captivate me to quite the same extent as ‘The Edge of the Sea’, a weirdly abstract tale in which a lone man struggles to retrieve a weighty and perhaps alien artefact from the incoming tide. In many ways, ‘The Edge of the Sea’ could be read as a sketch for the longer, more complicated novel that was to follow two years later and that is probably Budrys’s best-known work: a man alone, big dumb object, existential horror.

The premise of Rogue Moon is simple: a mysterious Formation has been discovered on the moon, some sort of alien artefact in the form of a labyrinth. From the outside, the dimensions of this object appear finite – passing through and out the other side should be a simple matter. For scientific genius Ed Hawks, the object on the moon has become a life’s obsession. As the inventor of a matter duplication process, he has provided the US navy with the perfect means not only for sending men (the idea that women might also make suitable astronauts is not even considered here) into space, but also for discovering the ultimate purpose of the lethal Formation. Explorers subjected to Hawks’s process are placed into a kind of lucid sleep, while their digital twin is projected to a remote location – in this case the moon – to complete the mission. As the novel opens, none of these duplicated explorers have managed to survive inside the labyrinth for more than a couple of minutes. What is more, the shock of experiencing their own death, even by proxy, has in every instance propelled the surviving astronaut back on Earth into a catatonic stupor.

Hawks is in despair at finding a solution. But now the project’s chief PR man Vincent Connington claims to have discovered the perfect candidate, a man whose relationship with fear falls somewhere between addiction and disdain. Al Barker is a professional daredevil with a jaded attitude to life and to humanity. He doesn’t care much about the ethical implications of being duplicated – just show him the labyrinth, people. But as both Barker and Hawks will discover, new technology often comes with unforeseen side effects, and how those side effects are dealt with often lies closer to the heart of the story than the outward premise.

In Rogue Moon, Budrys was trying out what was then a wholly new approach to science fiction. Budrys’s novel constantly shifts the action – the astronauts, the moon, the labyrinth – into the background, while insisting that the human concerns – the antagonism between Connington and Hawks, the nascent relationship between Hawks and the young fashion designer Elizabeth Cummings, Al Barker’s spiritual nihilism – are placed front and centre. It is not until the final sequence – Hawks’s and Barker’s joint journey into the Formation – that the sense of wonder that is implicit in Rogue Moon‘s premise is allowed to surface.

In its foregrounding of philosophy and such novelistic concerns as literary realism, Rogue Moon can reasonably be argued as an important precursor of science fiction’s New Wave. Budrys is clearly seeking to show new ways in which science fiction can be radical, and for this reason alone the novel is interesting. Budrys clearly struggles with the long form though, and there are portions of Rogue Moon that come over as clunky and obvious: heavy philosophical discussions delivered in the manner of a lecture, vast tracts of exposition, characters firing off deeply meaningful soliloquies as if their interlocutor existed solely as a repository for information rather than as a participant in the drama.

The gender politics of Rogue Moon are also pretty much unsalvageable. Budrys tries hard to grapple with The Question of Woman, yet still cannot resist having Al Barker’s girlfriend Claire Pack – callously vampish in a Ballardian kind of way – deliver most of her dialogue while clothed in a bikini, and sets Hawks up as being immediately, irresistibly attractive to a woman half his age and with no purpose in the narrative other than to sympathise with her hero’s existential agony and make him nourishing meals. Hawks – like Budrys – obviously wants to be better at this stuff than he is, but keeps coming off like Boris Johnson trying to get to grips with racism in modern Britain:

“Women have always fascinated me. As a kid I did the usual amount of experimenting. It didn’t take me long to find out life wasn’t like what happened in those mimeographed stories we had circulating around the high school. No, there was something else – what, I don’t know, but there was something about women. I don’t mean the physical thing. I mean some special thing about women, some purpose that I couldn’t grasp. What bothered me was that here were these other intelligent organisms, in the same world with men, and there had to be a purpose for that intelligence. If all women were for was the continuance of the race, what did they need intelligence for? A single set of instincts would have done just as well. And as a matter of fact, the instincts are there, so what was the intelligence for? There were plenty of men to take care of making the physical environment comfortable. That wasn’t what women were for. At least, it wasn’t what they had to have intelligence for… But I never found out. I’ve always wondered.” (RM p 124, Masterworks edition)

You see what I mean? Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that when I went in search of better discussions of gender equality in 1960s fiction I struggled to find any – or at least any written by men. I started out thinking that the gender issues in Rogue Moon must be a science fiction problem, but no, just a men problem. It turns out that for any real insight into societal attitudes towards women at the time Rogue Moon was published – women as individuals or as artists or indeed any aspect of gender politics – you’re going to need to read some women writers.

The unthinkingly human-centric (and for that read Western-centric) aspect of Rogue Moon is also troubling, especially now. Budrys seems unable to imagine a universe whose fate is not to be conquered by the Right Stuff, striding out to the stars and all that, just as Hawks and Connington cannot imagine not taking the moon Formation apart (and thereby destroying it) to see how it works. It would be another ten years before Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explored the event site in Roadside Picnic, suggesting in the process that for a species in its existential infancy, a policy of ‘look, don’t touch’ might be a more prudent approach to the exploration of our environment.

And yet. Although as a novel Rogue Moon is only partially successful, it is still worth reading, perhaps even because of its own inner contradictions and turmoil, In Algis Budrys we see – always – a writer who cares about his subject matter, We sense that Hawks’s struggle with questions of mortality, eternity and identity are also his own. This is a vital book – a book in which the ideas are alive and evolving and of ongoing importance to the writer. In a work like this – as in much ground-breaking science fiction – the rough edges and raw nerve are part of the appeal. Novels should not be perfect artefacts – the best remain, almost inevitably, works in progress.

The core ideas in Rogue Moon have clearly been influential on other writers – the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, Stanislaw Lem in Solaris, even Christopher Priest, more than thirty years later, in The Prestige. More than that, though, when Rogue Moon hits the mark we are offered glimpses of a literary approach that is unique to science fiction, both marvellously timeless and fascinatingly of its time. The passages dealing with Hawks’s and Barker’s entry into the labyrinth show Budrys at his best – and present us with a vision that is unearthly and breathtaking:

The wall shimmered and bubbled from their feet up into the black sky with its fans of violet light. Flowers of frost rose up out of the plain where their shadows fell, standing highest where they were furthest from the edges and so least in contact with the light. The frost formed humped, crude white copies of their armour, and, as Hawks and Barker moved against the wall, it lay for one moment open and exposed, then burst silently from steam pressure, each outflying fragment of discard trailing a long, delicate strand as it ate itself up and the entire explosion reluctantly subsided. (RM p 161)

In spite of its flaws, I became rather fond of Rogue Moon. A full fortnight after reading, it’s still very much present, which leaves Budrys’s mission as a writer successfully accomplished. I’ll be returning to Budrys’s work, no question, and hope to report my findings here in due course.

Obsolescence

This morning I happened upon this superbly articulate and, I would say, essential essay by McKenzie Wark, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Quite apart from the admiration one would obviously feel for the way it is written – such an engaging and dynamic arrangement of arguments – it seems to me that this piece presents one of the most cogent defences of science fiction I have ever read. Wark shows SF to be not just radical but necessary as a means of exposing the derangement of our present age:

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.”

The essay seemed to come as an answer to the question of why I feel an almost inevitable unease – discomfort even – in the presence of a novel like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, one of the most perfectly realised studies of interiority I have encountered recently with not a word out of place or superfluous, and yet there is that dis-ease, all the same. It seemed to chime with feelings of sadness at the death of Brian Aldiss, one of our most insatiably curious writers, and devoted to SF almost at his own peril. Along with others whose comments I’ve seen in response to the various online memorials, I could come close to arguing that my intellectual life was kick-started by Aldiss’s great Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and the vision it presented of SF as a distinct literature, a movement almost.

I feel fortunate in reading Wark’s essay precisely now, as I contemplate new work, new directions. I have a pile of notes already for the next book and I think it would be fair to say that I’m excited about it but even more so after today, with all these new thoughts about what the novel is for still in my mind.

Most of the book industry conspires against such a vision but that only makes it more exciting, more necessary.

*

Currently reading: Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, which is spare, chilling and excellent. It is also on the shortlist for the Gordon Burn Prize, which by accident rather than design I happen to have read most of, as well as several other titles that appeared on the longlist.  I’ve been so impressed by the Gordon Burn Prize – its ethos, its juries’ choices – that I am seriously considering reading and reviewing the full longlist next year, as a planned reading project. As for this year, I was lucky enough to hear Denise Mina talk about The Long Drop at the recent Bute Noir crime writing festival right here in Rothesay, an event that has proved to be one of the highlights of our first summer here, a miniature Bloody Scotland with every seat taken and everyone already looking forward to more of the same in 2018.

“In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.”

*

The summer is well advanced, but still so full of things. Chris and I will be guests of Fantasticon, in Copenhagen, at the end of this month. At the end of next month there’s FantasyCon, and after that I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency, and hopefully writing. The new book will be set in Rothesay, or rather versions of Rothesay, with the novel that brought me on my first visit here more than a decade ago now – Andrew O’Hagan’s ravishing Personality – standing over me like an admonishment…

An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.

Best of the Year 2016 Edition

The end of the year is an odd moment at the best of times, bringing with it that sense of insecurity and flux that comes with darker days and longer evenings, with the idea of passing from one delineated period of time into another. Normally it feels helpful to collate a roll-call of the best books of the year, a kind of time capsule of literature that might define the year in some way, whilst simultaneously becoming a memento of it.

2016 feels different though. The Brexit vote at the end of June served to snap the year in two, creating a decisive break with the first half and forming for many a permanent dividing line between the country, the political culture, the beliefs and systems and values they grew up with and thought they understood and the retrograde, embittered, still-colonialist-minded, defensive surveillance state we appear to be living in now. Naively perhaps, I always believed in England and the English as a haven of pragmatism. Not the most cultured nation in the world, as Isiah Berlin once said, but among the most civilised. Above all, a bastion of eccentric, streetwise, compassionate common sense.

I don’t know any more. Truly, I don’t. Among my many core reasons for voting to remain in the European Union was a lack of trust in our own irresponsibly short-termist political culture – both Labour and Tory – in its desire or ability to properly uphold and administer a sustainable and just system of human rights legislation, environmental protection, social welfare, working conditions, energy regulation, protection and help for immigrants and asylum seekers. The building blocks of a sustainable future, in other words, and the founding principles on which the very idea of a European Union is based.

None of these matters was significantly discussed by any of the key players during the run-up to the referendum. The paucity of properly engaged debate and the poisonous, hateful mendacity of what did occur are still profound griefs to me, scars on our body politic I still find it difficult to speak about without tears or rage. I hold the passive-aggressive abdication of responsibility displayed by the leader of our so-called opposition almost equally in contempt. Holding the moral high ground becomes an act of meaningless arrogance when what you’ve actually done is doom the electorate to a decade (and probably more) of Tory rule and with it the possible dismantling of whatever fragments of social infrastructure we still have left.

To have these nightmare scenarios repeated, almost beat for beat, less than six months later in the US Presidential election was an experience I might have described as surreal, in the true and original sense of the word, were the moment not so abjectly serious, so morally grievous, so actively terrifying to so many, such an incipient and ongoing threat to everyone that breathes, even those that don’t realise it yet.

I have found it difficult, these past months, to write about literature, about science fiction, even as I continue to passionately care about it. Neither have I wanted to pointlessly sound off about politics, to repeat the same things others are saying but less articulately, to dive full tilt into a situation we do not – cannot – properly understand yet. I do not personally remember the political atmosphere of this country being so charged since the fall of Thatcher – and that felt, or at least it did for a while, like a good time, a time in which positive change was not simply possible but actively on its way. These past six months have been of another order entirely, and my creative and intellectual energies have been directed towards trying to understand how I, as a writer of fiction, might and should respond. Whether work already in progress before these happenings is still relevant, still finishable, and if not, where to turn instead. That I have not worked out the answers to these questions anywhere near fully should go without saying.

Having said all that, it would feel completely wrong of me not to highlight some of the fine writing I’ve encountered this year, a year in which, hopefully, we have begun to remember the very real importance and value of writing not just as a weapon but as an act of resistance.

My favourite novels of this year have been Little Sister Death by William Gay, The Life Writer by David Constantine, The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang and Infinite Ground by Martin McInnes. It can hardly be called a coincidence that the main theme of all four is memory, its duplicity and solace. As regards more obviously SFnal works, I would like to keep my powder dry a little longer. There are plans afoot for more extended commentary on the science fiction of 2016 – more on that in the New Year – but for now I’d like to give a shout-out to Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, both works of genuine and far-reaching quality, literary and speculative, and an essential addition to the reading list of genre commentators.

I have always been an enthusiast for the novella form, and 2016 has brought us some fine examples. My favourite might have to be Carole Johnstone’s Wetwork, published in Black Static, a monstrous hybrid – in Johnstone’s own words – of True Detective and World War Z and (in my opinion at least) easily as good as the both of them put together. The glory of Wetwork is Johnstone’s use of language, the gnarly textures of Doric and Glasgow Scots, with Johnstone’s ear for dialogue one of the key features of her deeply felt writing. Close on its heels comes The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, a novella I fell in love with from the moment I encountered it. A story told against the aftermath of World War One, the eerie weirdness of Missives is surpassed only by Whiteley’s sense of place, the rural hamlets and farmsteads of western Somerset where the action takes place. Shirley and Mr Tiller are unforgettable characters, and Whiteley’s ability to combine a personal coming-of-age story with a politically resonant and significant narrative is as reliable as ever. Most recently we have A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson’s gloriously imagined, linguistically exuberant follow-up to last year’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  Along with Sofia Samatar, Wilson is for my money one of the most gifted and significant of the newer American writers, with his work rapidly becoming essential reading for anyone with an interest in speculative fiction. Wilson recently gave a podcast interview with Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan of the Coode Street Podcast, with his views on literature, aesthetics, political engagement and science fiction now as thoughtful and inspiring as anything he’s put on the page. Recommended listening, definitely.

I didn’t get round to reading anywhere near as much short fiction this year as I would have liked, but that doesn’t leave me short of recommendations. 2016 saw the publication in Interzone and Black Static of four new stories by Malcolm Devlin, a writer who has been floating just under the radar until now but who is certain to win greater notice in 2017 with the publication of his debut collection by Unsung Stories. For now, I would recommend you get ahead of the game by reading the magnificent ‘Dogsbody’ and ‘The End of Hope Street’, which showcase Devlin’s understated, bleakly humorous and shiningly original writing to perfection. Devlin’s collection, like Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney before it, is set to become one of the decade’s landmarks of English weird, so be ready to order your copy for early next summer. Speaking of Unsung Stories, one of their editors, Gary Budden, has a story out with Galley Beggar Singles, ‘We Are Nothing But Reeds’, the poignant and unsettling tale of a young couple who try to escape the crushing demands of a life in London for the depleted and mist-laden coastline of East Anglia. Budden’s writing is sparse, terse even, but perfectly suited to the landscapes of dislocation and alienation that are his natural milieu. A new discovery for me, Irenosen Okojie’s collection Speak Gigantular is a work of rare confidence, luminous imagery and full of hidden sharp edges. There are few things that bring greater joy in reading than coming upon a talent so delightful, so penetrating, so scandalous. Okojie’s stories are magical in all the most interesting senses of that word: devious, enthralling, unexpected. I would hope and expect to see Speak Gigantular shortlisted for awards next year. Helen Marshall’s ‘One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want’ in Liminal Stories and inspired by a set of photographs showing the stark social conditions prevalent in post-communist Romania, has the feel of a previously undiscovered Grimm brothers tale, but with a somewhat more hopeful ending. Benjanun Sriduangkaew had a great crop of new stories out this year. My favourite is probably ‘The Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings’ in Clockwork Phoenix 5, showcasing Sriduangkaew’s characteristically opulent, metaphor-rich language in a story that reminded me a little of Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, only much less predictable and more hard-hitting. Vajra Chandrasekera has also been busy in 2016, and his use of metafiction and instinctive, disruptive feel for language are always going to put his stories high on my list of favourites. Start with ‘Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes’ at Strange Horizons. Also at Strange Horizons we have Sarah Tolmie’s ‘The Dancer on the Stairs’, a story that first appeared as part of her duology Two Travelers earlier in the year. Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment. For further insights into her process, I recommend this interview with her, conducted by Maureen Kincaid Speller.

Within the realms of non-fiction, I must again recommend Tartarus Press’s volume of Joel Lane’s essays This Spectacular Darkness, edited and introduced by Mark Valentine, which truly is essential reading for everyone with an interest in weird fiction. Sticking with the weird, Big Echo have published Jonathan McCalmont’s extended essay Nothing Beside Remains: a History of the New Weird. An invaluable resource, McCalmont’s essay not only provides in-depth analysis of key writers and key movements in speculative fiction in the first half of the 2000s, but also links to key sources – in particular the TTA discussion forums – that tracked the development of the New Weird at the time. Another invaluable resource, Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF for tor.com (Part 1 and Part 2) is a fascinating and essential guide to what’s new and what’s happening in Afro-SF, both on the continent and in diaspora. The only downside to these pieces is the number of books you’ll want to buy as a result of reading them! I also want to mention Grady Hendrix’s Freaky Fridays at tor.com. This ongoing series of posts, in which Hendrix dissects the more bizarre extremities of 1970s/80s horror literature, is not only a treasure trove of horror esoterica, it’s flat-out entertaining too, providing me with many laugh-out-loud moments in a year that needed every laugh-out-loud moment it could get.

Not SF, but important to me this year have been Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be, a memoir that manages to be anti-memoir, a slim volume that examines the problematic nature of writing about the self, about war, about falling in love with a country that is not your own. Pawson’s writing is driven, nervy, never still. I read this book in one sitting over one long train journey and it is with me still. If I were to take one book away from this year to read again and again, it would probably have to be Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which has resonated as deeply and as lastingly for me as Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border the year before. The inevitable backlash against ‘nature writing’ has already started, and as with any genre I guess there is some self-indulgent, self-serving writing out there. H is for Hawk is neither of those things. It is tough, passionate, deeply invested in its subject matter and destined to become a classic.

Some of the best books I read this year were not published this year. Alasdair Gray’s mighty Lanark is a novel of lasting importance and genuine stature, probably the most substantial work of fiction I’ve read in some time. Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath is a novel I know I’ll be reading again from a writer whose excellence has yet to be fully appreciated. Andrew Miller’s The Crossing turned out to be every bit as affecting and surprising as I hoped it would be – how it wasn’t shortlisted for awards in its year of publication is beyond me. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser contains all the frustrations, contradictions and ravishing delight of pure genius, and though I’ve come late to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, that hasn’t prevented it from being the most important-to-me book I’ve read all year.

I would like to wish everyone reading this a very happy new year, and strength, courage and renewed determination in the months ahead. We shall be rethinking, regrouping, and looking to new projects. With The Rift now safely in the production pipeline I have the first draft of a new novel written, a book that is close to my heart and that I look forward to returning to work on in the coming weeks.

Here’s to 2017 and all who sail in her. The fightback starts here.

This Spectacular Darkness

Anyone with an interest in the work of Joel Lane will no doubt be aware that his non-fiction was every bit as accomplished as his fiction. Joel’s essays on weird fiction, both his studies of individual writers and his analytical overviews of weird themes and perspectives, are amongst the most insightful and important in the genre. They are also accessible, thrilling in their scope and power, lovingly crafted with the skill of a master. Readers steeped in the weird and new converts alike will find in their pages a lifetime’s worth of material to contemplate and be inspired by.

Joel’s long-term aim was to compile from his essays a history of the weird, taking in a century and more of strange writers and their seminal works. It is both his tragedy and ours that Joel died before he was even halfway through his project. Those essays that do exist though – these constitute a major work of reference in their own right, and how lucky we are that Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker of Tartarus Press, aided by esteemed writer and critic Mark Valentine, have compiled and produced for us This Spectacular Darkness, a landmark work that brings together Joel’s extant critical essays, together with a number of additional essays celebrating and critiquing the poems, short fiction and novels of Joel Lane himself.

Tartarus Press books are always stunning, but this one is particularly beautiful and with its wealth of previously uncollected material, an absolute must for both fans of Joel’s work and historians, critics and commentators on the weird alike. I am especially proud to note that my own essay on Joel’s three novels, ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ (previously published as an addendum to Eibonvale Press’s collection of Joel’s stories Scar City) is also reproduced here. This is a limited edition hardcover, so hurry and secure your copy, while stocks last!

 

#weird2016: Lanark by Alasdair Gray

lanark-gray“What’s worth saying, three decades on, is that Lanark , in common with all great books, is still, and always will be, an act of resistance. It is part of the system of whispers and sedition and direct communion, one voice to another, we call literature. Its bravery in finding voice, in encouraging the enormous power of public, national, artistic, sexual and political imagination, is not something to take for granted.”

(Janice Galloway, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Us‘, The Guardian 2002)

In the Epilogue to Lanark, which can be found somewhere towards the latter quarter of this behemoth text, Gray directly references both Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon – ‘mostly conversations between disappointed Socialists’ – as key influences upon the novel. As Darkness at Noon, which I read at least four times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, was the work that most influenced me away from dogmatic socialism, and 1984, which I read for the first time probably in the very same year I first read Darkness at Noon, was one of the key works that introduced me to the vast radical intellectual potential of science fiction, Gray’s direct-to-reader irruption into his own novel raised more than a frisson of fellow feeling.

Lanark is so much more than this, though – so much more than excited underlining of key passages and thinking bloody hell, this could have been written yesterday. Interwoven with and inseparable from the blistering political commentary on our own times – and yes, Lanark truly is so prescient, so relevant to today’s political crisis it feels newly minted – are passages of such emotional and imaginative power they raise the whole from the merely important to the truly great.

I loved this book. Lanark is the kind of novel one emerges from with a renewed and evangelical appreciation of what writing is for.

*

In his engaging and candid introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Lanark, the novelist William Boyd describes his first encounter with the monster – he was commissioned to review it for the TLS when it was first published – and recalls his confusion regarding the novel’s fantastical elements:

“I know now why I didn’t respond with wholehearted enthusiasm to the allegorical story of Lanark in the city of Unthank. I was positioning myself, as all writers unconsciously do – and particularly as a first novelist whose first novel had just been published — using criticism of others to evaluate and proclaim what I myself stood for. I was and am a realistic novelist and I felt strongly then that fable, allegory, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism and the rest were not my literary cup of tea.  But I think that in my 1981 review I unconsciously prefigured aspects of my recent, late reading of the book.  The structure of Lanark – the small naturalistic novel embedded in a large eclectic one – is, it seems to me now, precisely the reason for the book’s enduring success.  I realize now that, for Alasdair Gray, the last thing on earth he wanted to achieve in Lanark was to write, and be hailed for writing, ‘a minor classic of the literature of adolescence’…[That] could never have been enough: every ambition that Gray had for his long-gestating book obliged him to create something larger, more complex, more difficult, more alienating. Gray needed the overarching machinery of allegory and fable to make Lanark transcend its origins.”

A fair enough analysis, one might think, and at least experience has brought Boyd a deeper understanding of Gray’s intentions. Yet – like so many writers and critics who disdain the fantastic or at the least entertain grave suspicions about its fitness to be included within the canon of ‘great literature’ – we still see Boyd stumbling about, stubbing his toe on concepts such as ‘allegory’ and ‘fable’, reminding us in the process of much of the inept debate that attended the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant just a year or two ago.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to view Lanark in terms of it being split into two ‘realistic’ books and two ‘science fiction’ books. The point and the glory of Lanark – and of much of the greatest science fiction – is that the two are inseparable. One of the most powerful passages in the entire novel – Duncan Thaw’s descent into madness at the end of the ‘realistic’, Glasgow-set Book 4 – bleeds seamlessly into the wire and workings of the nightmarish dystopia of Glasgow’s shadow-self, the city of Unthank. Thaw is Lanark, Lanark Thaw. There is little to be gained in seeking to pigeonhole them and certainly not clarity. Towards the end of this sequence, Glasgow begins to morph very visibly into Unthank: the scant trickle of river, the towering municipal building, the ‘tomb-rotten pile’ of the necropolis:

He remembered a stone-built city of dark tenements and ornate public buildings, a city with a square street plan and electric tramcars…but below a starless sky this city was coldly blazing. Slim poles as tall as the spire cast white light upon the lanes and looping bridges of another vast motorway. On each side shone glass and concrete towers over twenty floors high with lights on top to ward off aeroplanes. Yet this was Unthank, though the old streets between towers and motor lanes had a half-erased look, and blank gables stood behind spaces cleared for car parks.

There is a sense of utter desolation and loss, the sense of life and creative freedom slipping away under the foul iron hand of central planning, monetary imperatives, coercive control.  When talks are prepared and essays are written about the key works of social science fiction written in Britain over the past hundred years – works that have come to define our science fiction century – we are all used to hearing about Brave New World and 1984, Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr Moreau. We are less used to hearing about Lanark. which seems to me to be a dire and almost laughable oversight. Lanark is a towering achievement in terms of its creative expression, its social comment but also its science fiction. Gray seizes the levers of science fiction with an uncanny natural ability, driving the machine forward with instinct and purpose. Gray is no science fiction tourist. He makes himself a part of the conversation not by covertly seeking admittance but by barrelling into the room and raising a storm. His science fiction feels intense and sophisticated – a polemic in the European tradition of argument-making and ideas-formation – and yet at the same time urgent, rough-hewn, so raw it is bloody.

*

Again and again, Duncan/Lanark finds himself crushed beneath the absolute incompatibility of creativity and capitalism, freedom of thought and the money-making impulse. At its heart, Lanark is a portrait of the artist as a young man – another of the key texts referenced directly by Gray in his crafty (and very funny – Lanark is funny, folks) Epilogue.  As every serious artist before him, Duncan Thaw has first to win the trust and admiration of the system before rejecting it utterly:

“This exam is endangering an important painting. It would be blasphemy to waste my talent making frivolous decorations for a non-existent liner. But I see your difficulty. You must uphold the art school, while I am upholding art. The solution is simple. Do not award me this diploma. I promise not to feel offended. The diploma is useless, except to folk who want to be teachers.”

This realisation – that like every great artist he is essentially on his own in uncharted territory – is both exhilarating and terrifying. In one of my favourite passages in Lanark, Duncan Thaw feels furious with an art school assignment – ‘Washing Day’ – for being so tame, so lacking in relevance, that he is minded not to attempt it. Then he finds himself swept along, subverting the notion of quaintness in a stark, ecstatic expression of his own vision, his own Glasgow:

His pen paused above the page then descended and sketched the tree on Sauchiehall Lane, making it larger, and leafless, and among the tenements and back greens of Riddrie. Around it three dwarfish housewives were stretching ropes between iron clothes poles, and he drew them from a memory of a home help who had looked after the house while his mother was dying. They wore headscarves, men’s boots, and big aprons covered their chests and skirts giving them a sexless, surgical look. At the top of the picture the tree’s highest branch stuck into a strip of sky among the tenement chimneys. He remembered a Blake engraving of a grey ocean with an arm sticking out of a wave, the hand clutching at the empty sky. Another Blake engraving showed a tiny pair of lovers watching a small frenzied figure set foot on a ladder so thin and high that the top rested in the sickle of a moon. A caption said, “I want! I want!” Thaw drew a moon in the sky above the treetop.

*

Lanark is a simple and in some ways familiar story: a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the years after the second world war discovers he is unlike other boys, that he loves reading and painting. To the consternation of his parents and teachers, he refuses to let his creative ambition be defined by the demands of a system geared towards making money. Thaw goes to college and there begins to find friends who are at least partially of the same mind, though his continuing difficulties in forming relationships with the opposite sex, coupled with chronic illness and an obsessive, irascible temperament, combine to plunge him into a spiral of depression and poor physical health from which he fails ultimately to escape. Thaw dies tragically, in a kind of accidental suicide, and then seems to pass into a hell that proves to be nothing more than a starker, darker portrayal of the world he has left.

Is Unthank one of Duncan’s murals, a kind of John Martin-like vista of horror revealing the corruption and wrongheadedness of the contemporary political landscape? Is Unthank a warning – a doomsday scenario – or merely an accurate depiction of the world as we currently experience it? Alasdair Gray’s Lanark has been described as the novel that kickstarted the Scottish literary renaissance – James Kelman, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh all cite him as a life-changing influence. Scotland’s makar, Jackie Kay, insists that it was meeting and talking with Alasdair Gray as a teenager that gave her the confidence to think of herself as ‘a writer’. We should also note that it was an Englishman and a science fiction writer – Anthony Burgess – who first hailed Lanark as ‘a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom’.

Lanark is important to Scotland, important to science fiction, important to modernism. It is novels of of such passionate ambition that reinvigorate the whole idea of literature for a new generation. Some of them – Lanark, for example – will continue to do so, for one generation after another.

The Gradual in Bath

gradualpriestIt’s weird, the way novels happen.

Chris was actually in the early stages of writing a quite different novel when he broke off to work on a short story commissioned by Conrad Williams for his anthology Dead Letters. The piece of ‘misdirected mail’ Chris had received as a prompt for his story was a broken 12″ of Bjork’s magnificent single ‘Hyperballad’. (Conrad, if you were hoping to provoke a ‘whaaat???’ at this end, you got it.) It didn’t take him long to go off at a radical tangent from this ‘dead letter’ and within less than a fortnight a new novel was being born, the ideas and images stimulated by his initial germ of an idea just too big and too many to be contained within the bounds of a single short story.

Conrad must really have been on to something with Dead Letters, because exactly the same thing happened to me just a month or two later, when my short story – prompted by a weird blurry photograph that looked like something out of a found footage horror movie but that Conrad says actually was found in Hastings, where we were then living – ballooned into The Rift. Chris had already written to Conrad, explaining why he wouldn’t be contributing to Dead Letters after all. He had a good excuse, let’s face it. The problem for me was that I knew how dodgy it would sound, if I came up with the same one! I did manage to find a solution eventually, by writing a story (‘Astray’) that span off from The Rift, involving different characters and a different emphasis, but that allowed me to play with the core situation from another angle. I was happy and relieved to be able to deliver it right around around the time Chris was completing the first draft of what came to be The Gradual.

The Gradual is a remarkable novel, and unusual in the fact that it is the first of Chris’s to be set entirely within the Dream Archipelago and following one broadly unitary narrative. The key themes of time, memory, war and the creative impulse are all there, but in Alesandro Sussken we have a narrator who is not so much unreliable as has unreliability practised upon him. Sandro is also a native of Glaund, a grey, militarised city on the northern continent for whose inhabitants the islands of the Archipelago are a forbidden destination. We get to share in Sandro’s wonder as he discovers that the world as it has been explained to him is merely a mean and closeted part of what is really out there.

A favourite character for me personally is Sandro’s brother, Jacj. Taken for 002military service while Sandro is still a boy, Jacj is for Sandro a constant and painful reminder of the true nature of the regime that has – until now – controlled his whole outlook. The theme of brotherhood is another leitmotif of Chris’s fiction and the story of Jacj and Sandro is particularly touching and strange.

The Gradual is a mysterious book, dreamlike, but with a core of steel, and its almost accidental beginnings make it all the more compelling. It is officially published this Thursday, September 15th, but I’m happy to say that for those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, copies will be available a full twenty-four hours earlier, when Chris launches the book at Waterstones Bath on Wednesday! Chris will be performing a short reading from The Gradual, followed by an interview conducted by Steve Andrews, the manager of Waterstones Bath and a longtime Priest enthusiast. There will then be an audience Q&A and of course the opportunity to purchase The Gradual and get it signed.

005There will also be copies of The Race on sale and I’ll be more than happy to sign them. So if you’re in the Bath area tomorrow, do please come along and say hello. It should be a wonderful evening and our heartfelt thanks go to Steve Andrews for getting things organised. The event begins at 6.30 but we’ll be there a little earlier for coffee, cake and bookchat if anyone feels like joining us!

#weird2016: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westcountry Weird at Waterstones Exeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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