Category Archives: books

#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!

Hardy of the Highlands

his bloody project gmbCrime blog: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Anyone who’s read a Hardy novel will know how his stories pan out: a fundamentally decent human being makes a mistake. This error might be rooted in a secret past, it might be an action forced upon them by adverse circumstance. Whatever it is, it snowballs. Far from being allowed to forget their youthful transgressions, our unfortunate protagonist sees their life sliding further and further beyond their control, resulting finally in a tragic denouement which, for Hardy fans, is all part of the painful pleasure of reading him. We know, almost from the first page, that things will not end well. What draws us on is Hardy’s evident sympathy for his characters, his passionate involvement in the human condition. He’s a good plotter, too – a characteristic of his fiction that isn’t mentioned enough.

And it was Thomas Hardy that kept coming to mind as I read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-longlisted novel His Bloody Project. Hardy’s first extant novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, was published in 1872, just a couple of years after the action of Macrae’s novel ostensibly takes place, but it’s not the books’ historical cousinage that draws the comparison so much as the doomed nature of things.

Macrae presents his narrative as a series of documents pertaining to a crime carried out in the Highland settlement of Culduie. The bulk of the text consists of a testament, written from prison by seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, charged with the murder of Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the town constable, along with two other members of his family. Roddy does not deny his crimes – indeed, he turns himself in almost as soon as the butchery is over – but he has agreed, at his advocate’s suggestion, to put his case in writing: how did he come to commit these murders, and why?

Over the course of some hundred and fifty pages, Roddy Macrae tells the story of how his family fell deeper into debt and near destitution, small misunderstandings leading to grievous misfortune, all presided over by the hulking figure of Lachlan Broad, a man who seems bent on the destruction of the Macrae clan, and all for reasons unknown. What else is Roddy to do to save his father and siblings? What else can he do? As in all of Hardy’s great novels, the outcome seems inevitable, inexorable. But where Hardy chooses to tie up his narratives pretty firmly, securing his loose ends in traditional nineteenth century fashion, Macrae Burnet seats us, as readers, on the bench alongside the jury at Roddy’s trial. Just how accurate, how truthful, is the murderer’s testimony? The end of Roddy’s story is plain to see, yet the impulse that brought him to that end is not so certain.

Nature, or nurture? Choice, or circumstance? Was Roddy mad, or simply bad, and dangerous to know?

His Bloody Project is a tightly worked novel, beautifully crafted and compulsively readable. The language – understated, idiomatic, stark and elegant – is one-hundred percent fit for purpose. As well as the mystery surrounding the murders, the novel also has much to say about the social inequalities and class divides that characterised life in the Highlands at the time, many of them stemming directly from the Highland Clearances. The very real poverty and hardship sustained by ordinary crofters and working people is portrayed in a forthright, unsentimental manner that imparts a wealth of information without ever becoming overtly didactic, revealing great skill on the part of the author in and of itself.

All that being said, I have to admit to not fully understanding the novel’s selection for the Booker longlist. When I compare it with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, for example, shortlisted for the Booker in 1996 and with a narrative roughly equatable with His Bloody Project, I would be forced to conclude that in terms of its depth, breadth and stylistic innovation, Alias Grace far outdoes His Bloody Project in terms of its reach and literary ambition. Whilst Macrae Burnet does provide us with a measure of dramatic irony, contemporary metafictionality and a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, I would ideally have liked to see all these aspects writ larger, deeper. Whilst wishing Macrae Burnet all the luck in the world – it’s fantastic to see a relatively new author published by a Scottish independent press making his mark in this way – I would have liked His Bloody Project to be bolder and more out there in its commitment to postmodernity.

Saying these things makes me feel somewhat churlish, however, because they are somehow beside the point. What gets on any award long- or shortlist is down to the judges, and should not take away from the fact that what Macrae Burnet has produced here is a good novel, sound in wind and limb, a shifting-sands kind of narrative that is never quite what you think it is. For anyone interested in crime writing, in Scottish writing, in a damn fine story, I would recommend His Bloody Project unreservedly.

Nail, head.

TheCrossing.Miller“I had believed in fiction as a uniquely powerful way of speaking the truth about experience. I had believed that it was, like art in general, necessary, and that a society with no interest in reading serious fiction (serious meaning done with care, with love) was in some way damaged or on its way to being so. None of that, I realised, had really changed. What I had believed at 17 I still, by and large, thought true. But now there was something else going on, a chilly countercurrent, a hard-to-pin-down sense of frustration that seemed to organise itself around the idea that fiction – in novels, in films, on television – had become more competent than interesting, more decorative than urgent, more conventional than otherwise. I picked up novels and put them down again. They were not badly written, not at all, but after a page or two I felt I knew them, knew what, at the deeper level, they were up to. I slid off their surfaces. I struggled to care. I had precisely the same difficulty with my own work. Projects started; projects abandoned. Was this writer’s block? Or was it a hazy recognition that there might be some problem with “traditional narrative”? A set of assumptions that had become almost invisible but that shaped what we wrote?”

In a fascinating piece in The Guardian, novelist Andrew Miller writes about the problem of fiction in a way that is striking a particularly resonant chord with me right now. Is the manufactured, anodyne quality of so much of today’s fiction in some way a mirror to the political situation in which we now find ourselves? The literature of disengagement ultimately signalling a crisis-of-everything? These are some of the questions I’m thinking about – along with are we now reaching the end of the current political era?  I will certainly be reading Andrew Miller’s latest novel, The Crossing, which sounds pretty special and if it gets a good review from Kate Clanchy – who never pulls her punches – then that’s good enough for me.

#weird2016: ‘The Devil is in the Coincidence’: two American horror stories

TL;DR: Buy these books. Read them now.

AHFOG.TremblayThe first indication that anything is wrong in the lives of the two sisters in Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts is when the older girl, Marjorie, begins telling scary stories. Meredith, known to everyone as Merry, is used to playing story-games with her beloved big sister, but she’s never heard anything like this before. Instead of adapting fairy tales in her usual manner, Marjorie tells Merry all about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. When Merry, horrified, asks her if the story is something she found on the internet, Marjorie insists the details of the disaster were lodged inside her all along:

‘I don’t know. I woke up yesterday and just sort of knew the story, like it was something that’s always been there in my head. Stories are like that sometimes, I think. Even real ones. And I know this one was a horrible, terrible, no-good story, but I – I can’t stop thinking about it, you know? I wonder what it was like to be there, what it was like to be Maria, to see and smell and hear and feel what she felt right that second before the wave got her. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well, but I just wanted to tell you, Merry. I wanted to share it with you. Okay?’

Later that same day, there is a disturbing scene at the dinner table when Marjorie and her mother Sarah start talking about an ‘appointment’ that Merry knows nothing about. The girls’ father, David, insists they say grace – something else that has never happened before. We learn that David has recently lost his job, that the whole family has been under stress as a result. But it soon becomes obvious that more sinister forces are at work here, something to do with Marjorie, and that the adults are increasingly in conflict over what to do about it. Sarah feels sure that her daughter is suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that the conventional methods – medical treatment and psychiatric counselling – are the best way forward. David, with time on his hands and resentment brewing, has come to believe that his daughter’s sickness is the devil’s work, that a demon is living inside her and that the only way to dislodge it is through God’s intercession. He begins consulting a priest, Father Wanderley, who offers the Barratts a way forward, an opportunity to remove the demon and rid themselves of their financial worries at the same time. Against her better judgement, Sarah agrees. As the atmosphere inside the house darkens, and the truth about what is going on becomes ever more confused, Marjorie herself seems desperate to communicate her predicament to the only person she still trusts – her sister Merry:

‘I’m not well, Merry. I don’t mean to frighten you, I’m sorry… You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are – there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say “okay”.’

Marjorie’s terrifying experiences are brilliantly conveyed at one remove. Because Merry is only a child, she finds it difficult to tell where fantasy begins and reality leaves off. Eight-year-old Merry barely understands how bad the situation really is – but her older self knows, and as Tremblay has skilfully interwoven the first-hand observations of child-Merry with the insights of Merry-grown-up, we as readers are better able to appreciate the ambiguity of what actually occurred. These narrative sections are intercut with two extended interjections from a horror blogger, detailing and analysing the TV series based around the events at the Barratt home. That Tremblay’s fictional horror fan carries the same name as a real blogger and is liberally based – with her full consent – around her online personality is a further breaking of the fourth wall in a novel that is continually inventive and surprising, playing with our expectations and then subverting them again. There is no doubt that Tremblay is fully in command of his genre materials. He is also a very good writer. A Head Full of Ghosts has everything one could wish for in a horror novel, keeping faith with the tenets of the genre whilst remaining fully aware of itself as a literary entity:

I wondered what [this Father Wanderley] looked like. Was he young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat? Then I focussed on more particular and peculiar details, like what if he had big knuckles on his hands, or what if one leg was shorter than the other. Could he touch the tip of his nose with his tongue like my friend Cara could? Did he like pickles on his cheeseburgers? Did his smile crinkle up the skin around his eyes? Would he yawn if he watched me yawn? What did his voice sound like that Dad would like him so much?

It is this intricate level of characterisation that is missing from so many generic horror novels, much to their detriment. And it is largely due to writing like this – vivid, imaginative, grounded as hell – that Tremblay’s novel remains genuinely frightening right the way to the end. We’re scared because we care, because Tremblay’s skill as a writer has allowed us to entirely suspend our disbelief. That he keeps us guessing about the truth even beyond the final page is the icing on the cake.

It is impossible to read this novel and not think of The Exorcist, but Tremblay utilises his references so cogently, so knowingly, that they are definitively a feature and not a bug. As Catriona Ward’s recent debut Rawblood makes use of classic gothic tropes to create a novel that is simultaneously traditional and thoroughly modern in its affect and scope, so A Head Full of Ghosts turns its spotlight upon the works, themes and imagery of the 1970s/80s horror boom to reveal a multilayered metafiction that is also wholly satisfying as story. Those readers who are unreasonably devoted to the current North American horror scene will no doubt enjoy checking off the personages Tremblay has chosen to name-check – Stephen Graham Jones and Ian Rogers turn up in unexpected places, as does a certain Dr Navidson, whilst Tremblay also nods to himself in the mirror in passing – but for those with healthier reading habits, these self-referential games will neither impede nor intrude upon the action. It is more important to note the subtler reference, through Tremblay’s protagonist Merry, to Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another story of two troubled sisters in which a certain Merricat Blackwood proves to be a similarly unreliable narrator.

This book is a keeper, one to own in hardback if you can. And the good newsDADR.Tremblay is that Tremblay’s new novel is hardly less impressive. Another moving portrait of family life, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock deals with the aftermath of the sudden and unexplained disappearance of fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson from a patch of local wilderness known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy was a good kid, popular with his friends and loved by his family. He was doing well at school, had no known problems with drugs or alcohol, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. The friends who were with him on the night he went missing initially have no explanation for what has happened, and it is down to Tommy’s mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate, both still in shock, to delve deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s recent private life. As pages from Tommy’s journal make increasingly disturbing reference to an older boy named Arnold, so Kate in particular becomes convinced that Tommy’s friends, Luis and Josh, must know far more about Tommy’s whereabouts than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth investigates what she believes may be a physical manifestation of Tommy’s ghost. When the truth of what happened that night finally comes out, it is more tragic and more horrifying than anyone involved in the search has hitherto suspected.

This is a sad and often harrowing story, eloquently told. As the boys’ fascination with and dependency on Arnold increases, I found myself more and more reminded of a recent and tragic case in Britain in which a gifted and well-loved teenager was groomed online and finally murdered by a psychopathic youth, now serving a life sentence for the crime. Whether Tremblay knew of or was inspired by this case is finally irrelevant. What is most striking here is his intricately chilling depiction of what is essentially a seduction of the innocent by the corrupt.

When he first met Arnold, Josh had thought the whole seer shtick was exactly that, and Josh had pretended otherwise because it was fun and it was what their summer had become… Now he wasn’t so sure that there wasn’t something off or unsettling about Arnold, the repetition and sameness of their meeting place and discussions and beer drinking felt purposeful, like they were being worked on or worn down.

That Tremblay is able to give an unshrinking depiction of the monstrousness of Arnold’s deeds without simply dismissing their broken and previously abused perpetrator as a monster himself is entirely to the novel’s advantage. Tremblay’s writing shines throughout, giving a depth of characterisation and sense of place that raises Disappearance at Devil’s Rock far above the ordinary tensions of the missing-child thriller:

Allison pulls into Elizabeth’s driveway, as far up as she can go, and parks next to Janice’s car. The headlights flood her backyard. Busy moths and gnats float in the electric light above the tall and sagging grass. She shuts the car off, the spotlight disappears, and the secret nocturnal life of the backyard retreats into darkness again.

I also appreciate the fact that – as with A Head Full of Ghosts – Tremblay leaves room for Disappearance At Devil’s Rock to still be a novel of supernatural horror, if that’s the book the reader wants to be reading, thus proving once again that having literary values doesn’t mean selling out to the literary mainstream. Just because there’s a lot of schlock horror out there does not mean that horror is, by its nature, schlock.

It’s always risky to make generalisations, but if British horror fiction can be characterised as the literature of the outcast seeking its kind, it is interesting to see how we might think about American horror fiction as its polar opposite: the literature of the normal under siege. A quintessentially British horror narrative will typically feature a solitary, sometimes persecuted protagonist, seeking refuge from the world in an out-of-the-way and often creepy place, usually with uncanny results – think of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, Alison Littlewood’s A Cold Season, Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood and almost anything by Joel Lane or Robert Aickman. British horror films adhere strongly to the same template – have a look at Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (based on a story by Robert Graves) or Philip Ridley’s Heartless for examples. What we find in American horror fiction, time and time again, is the story of an ordinary family living a contented life, whose equilibrium and wellbeing is suddenly thrown off kilter by an intrusion – often a supernatural intrusion – from outside. This model is particularly prevalent in American horror cinema – we think at once of now classic movies such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, the first season of the TV drama American Horror Story and yes, The Exorcist. Reams and reams of criticism have been written about American horror cinema as a reflection of social anxiety, of post-Vietnam angst and Cold War (now post-9/11) paranoia. Much of this is interesting – see Adam Simon’s 2002 documentary The American Nightmare as an example – but whilst Paul Tremblay’s two novels do fit very snugly into the American canon of ‘bad things happening to good people’ stories, I would argue that A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock give us much more to think about than the oversimplified ‘middle classes in peril’ narratives presented by other, inferior works of horror literature and film, mainly because Tremblay writes about families and in particular teenagers from a position of deep empathy. The boys in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are captured at a moment of traumatic change, not just in their outward circumstances but in their inner being. Flaunting the behaviour of adults, they are still nonetheless just children, and thus all the more vulnerable to adult duplicity:

On the video, Josh seems like an impostor, usually so at ease and charming around adults, he is barely audible, speaks carefully in small complete sentences, at times sounding dull-witted, and is asked to repeat an answer more than once. Luis was normally such a lovable wiseass, always willing to play that teen vs adult obfuscation game, you can ask but you won’t get anything out of me, but still make you smile and shake your head at the same time. In his interview, Luis is painfully polite and (unlike Josh) eloquent, expansive and detailed in his responses.

In both novels, we see the middle class family in crisis: gathering in the living room to watch a TV news bulletin, scanning the internet for clues, sending out for Chinese food because no one can summon the energy to cook, deferring instinctively to the police in all matters. Teenagers put in their headphones, blocking out stress and unwelcome instructions with the sound of music. Above all, each person migrates to their own room, staking out a defined piece of private territory as a means of survival. This is crisis behaviour we all recognise, practised by people who feel disempowered, in thrall to an often ineffectual authority, bludgeoned by information yet unable to extract anything of use or significance from it, reduced to being onlookers in their own lives. We do not scorn or laugh at these people, because we are these people. Tremblay makes it easy for us to feel their distress, because what he has in fact painted is a pretty convincing picture of our own worst nightmares. When something bad happens, what is there left for us to do but retreat online and wait?

Two new anthologies

I have two brand new stories forthcoming in two brand new anthologies, both published next month.

drowned worlds.strahanDROWNED WORLDS, edited by Jonathan Strahan for Solaris, is an anthology of stories on the theme of climate change. I am particularly pleased to be involved with this book as the subject is important to me. My own story. ‘The Common Tongue, The Present Tense, The Known’ is set in an inundated Cornwall and is a sequel of sorts to my 2009 story ‘Microcosmos’, first published in Interzone. In it, you will meet an adult Melodie, who wants answers to some important questions about her missing aunt. I loved writing this. I enjoyed revisiting Melodie, learning more about her past and about her world. The anthology features a superb line-up of stories and as I say, I’m proud to be a part of it. Here’s the full Table of Contents:

  • Elves of Antarctica, Paul McAuley
  • Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts, Ken Liu
  • Venice Drowned, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Brownsville Station, Christopher Rowe
  • Who Do You Love?, Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy, Charlie Jane Anders
  • The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known, Nina Allan
  • What is, Jeffrey Ford
  • Destroyed by the Waters, Rachel Swirsky
  • The New Venusians, Sean Williams
  • Inselberg, Nalo Hopkinson
  • Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök, James Morrow
  • Last Gods, Sam J. Miller
  • Drowned, Lavie Tidhar
  • The Future is Blue, Catherynne M. Valente

Anthology number two is NOW WE ARE TEN, a collection of stories on the book_now_we_r_10_perfecttheme of ‘ten’ commissioned and brought together by Ian Whates in celebration of the tenth anniversary of NewCon Press. Ian originally founded NewCon in order to publish a charity anthology in aid of NovaCon. No one – least of all Ian – could have imagined how fast his initiative would take off, how far it would travel. NewCon is now one of the most respected and wide-ranging indie presses on the UK SF scene, and the stories in this anthology showcase the work of just some of the authors who have been associated with the press down the years. My own story, ‘Ten Days’, is a Silver Wind story. Yes, I got to revisit Martin and Dora, and a watch is involved. I love these characters dearly, and writing about them again has almost convinced me I should have a go at writing a novel about them someday. In the meantime, here’s the Table of Contents for Now We Are Ten:

1. Introduction by Ian Whates
2. The Final Path – Genevieve Cogman
3. Women’s Christmas – Ian McDonald
4. Pyramid – Nancy Kress
5. Liberty Bird – Jaine Fenn
6. Zanzara Island – Rachel Armstrong
7. Ten Sisters – Eric Brown
8. Licorice – Jack Skillingstead
9. The Time Travellers’ Ball – Rose Biggin
10. Dress Rehearsal – Adrian Tchaikovsky
11. The Tenth Man – Bryony Pearce
12. Rare As A Harpy’s Tear – Neil Williamson
13. How to Grow Silence from Seed – Tricia Sullivan
14. Utopia +10 – JA Christy
15. Ten Love Songs to Change the World – Peter F Hamilton 
16. Ten Days – Nina Allan
17. Front Row Seat to the End of the World –  EJ Swift   
        About the Authors  

 

#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