Category Archives: stories

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – short fiction focus

Nominations for this year’s BSFA Awards close on January 31st. In order for the awards to be truly representative of what’s going on in science fiction right now, we need as many people who are eligible to nominate, to nominate. Even if there’s just one SF novel you read last year that you feel passionate about, nominate that. If you’re a member of the BSFA, or a member of this year’s Eastercon, get your nominations in before the deadline here!

I haven’t decided on my final BSFA ballot quite yet. There are a couple more books I’m hoping to get read before the deadline (including this one – guess who purloined my copy!) I am still reading 2014 short fiction. too, and it’s short fiction I want to concentrate on in this post. I’ve felt quite depressed in recent years, looking at short fiction awards shortlists which have tended to privilege, again and again, a same few overhyped stories (some of them excellent, but that’s not the point) at the expense of – well, variety, urgency, originality, bizarreness. I can also point to myself as part of the problem – I haven’t been reading anywhere near enough short fiction, which means firstly that I’ve been missing out and secondly that I’ve been over-reliant on the recommendations of other, more valiant souls who I’ve been depending on to do the spadework for me.

The constant refrain at the moment is that there is now so much short fiction published each year that no one has a hope of keeping up with it all.  While it is undoubtedly true that the annual volume of short fiction now makes a comprehensive overview an ideal rather than an obtainable reality, I’ve noticed a dismaying trend recently to meet the impossibility of forming an objective judgement with a round dismissal of everything that’s out there.

I understand this reflex, believe me. What often makes me uneasy about the state of SFF short fiction is not so much the content but the context. I find magazines and anthologies difficult – all too often there’s that rag-bag effect that runs the danger of levelling everything down to a kind of flavourless mush – and I actually prefer reading short fiction within the context of a single-author collection, where you can gain a better sense of the writer’s overall purpose and character. On the other hand,  SFF is unique in offering a level literary playing field within the short fiction market and whatever the inherent problems, our magazine heritage, wherein new writers can and do regularly share ToC space with masters of the field, should not be discarded or denigrated lightly. Rather, this evolving democracy is something we should be proud of, and celebrate.

Just before Christmas I had an epiphany: what if every BSFA Awards voter (and Hugo voter) were to read just twenty pieces of new short fiction every year? Surely this would have at least some impact, not just upon individuals’ knowledge of the field but on their sense of investment in the awards process. Whether through random online reading (one of the most radical advancements in the field in recent years has been the increasing quality and availability of free short fiction online) or through the purchase of magazine subscriptions would be down to individual inclination and cash available, but I honestly do think the twenty-shorts-per-year formula would have a considerable effect on the discourse around short fiction.

Why not try it and see? It’s certainly what I’m going to be doing from now on. I would hope to read a whole lot more than twenty new stories, but I’m setting that as a lower boundary and intend to stick to it, both in the current year and beyond.

For now, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the 2014 short fiction that has caught my attention. One thing that is certain: the field is very far from dead, and with a more informed and passionate discussion we can all help to make it even more exciting. Here goes then with my recommendations to date and in no particular order:



‘The Innocence of a Place’ by Margaret Ronald (Strange Horizons). One of my year’s favourites, this story about an investigation into the disappearance of a group of young women kept reminding me of one of my favourite films, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I loved the ‘true crime’ style, something  I’m really into at the moment, combined with the personal insights of the narrator. Very much recommended.

‘Never the Same’ by Polenth Blake (Strange Horizons). A woman outcast from her community looks for ways to save it. I liked the narrative voice of this story so much I immediately looked for more fiction by the same author. I found ‘On Shine Wings’ at the Journal of Unlikely Entomology and was not disappointed. This story also features a beautiful illustration by the author, and be sure to check out the interview with Polenth Blake here.

‘Autodidact‘ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld).  Another favourite. ‘On Srisunthorn Station, the corpses of conquered stars are nurtured into ships.’ A survivor of genocide learns to bond with one of these world-ships – but where does her unusual talent really stem from? What I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s work is her own unusual talent for bonding quite spectacular feats of linguistic invention with hi-tech science fictional concepts. Her approach to space opera and urban fantasy is so refreshingly word-based, so tactile. The worlds she creates are harsh – what tenderness there is, is ultimately to be found in the language. You might also like ‘When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice‘ (Solaris Rising 3)

‘Ogres of East Africa’ by Sofia Samatar (Long Hidden).  Another brilliant story from Sofia Samatar. ‘Ogres’ is presented in the form of a series of catalogue entries on the ogres of East Africa, with another story entirely unfolding in the notes scribbled in the margins by the catalogue’s complier. Equally powerful is Samatar’s future dystopia ‘How to Get Back to the Forest’ (Lightspeed) which revisits some of the concerns voiced in ‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’, although this is a very different story.

”Help Me Follow my Sister into the Land of the Dead’ by Carmen Maria Machado (Help Fund My Robot Army). I enjoyed this story so much.  It’s presented in the form of a Kickstarter campaign, with accompanying user comments and FAQs. Humour, horror and great sadness, inventively portrayed. I love stories that do things with form and I love Machado’s writing.

‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ by Maria Theodoridou (Clarkesworld). I encountered this story while blogging the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and was struck by its technical accomplishment and use of actual science. I have to commend the author’s courage in bringing us a story that is almost one-hundred percent pure bleakness.  This is a story that’s stayed with me. Genuinely original and throught-provoking.

‘The Hymn of Ordeal, No 23′ by Rhiannon Rasmussen (Lightspeed). One of those occasions where you fall completely in love with a story for its imagery and language. A war involving millions condensed into a prose-poem about a brother and sister. There’s stuff here that reminds me of the worlds conjured in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories. You can read this in fewer than ten minutes, but this story’s power will remain with you far longer.

‘A Dweller in Amenty’ by Genevieve Valentine (Nightmare Magazine).

‘You’d think some sins would taste heady, forbidden. Worth it. An affair would be sharply sweet, a murder would taste of panic and lurching triumph, a lie would taste like escape, or spring.

If it did, there would be more of us.

A love affair is stale breath. A murder is sweat. A lie is a fingernail of dirt.’

I’ve been a fan of Genevieve Valentine ever since reading her debut novel, the marvellous Mechanique, and ‘A Dweller in Amenty’ is a powerful little horror story indeed. Based around the legend of the Sin Eater, the dubiously ‘gifted’ individual tasked with taking upon themselves the sins of the deceased in order that their cleansed souls can progress to the afterworld, this is what character-driven horror is all about. The narrator of this story could sustain a whole novel, easily.

‘The Mao Ghost’ by Chen Qiufan (Lightspeed). Ken Liu has done powerful things with the translation here, subtly conveying to non-Chinese speakers such as myself how a single word might carry several meanings, depending on intonation and context. This is a powerful story about a young girl coming to terms with the fact that her father is dying, and learning about what her parents’ generation went through during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Also cats.  This left me eager to read Chen Qiufan’s first novel in English translation, The Waste Tide. Ken Liu describes this as ‘a cyberpunk thriller set in China’s e-waste processing hub’. (Slated for release this year, apparently – I can’t wait.) Check out the author spotlight with Chen Qiufan here, and while you’re at it, do please read Ken Liu’s essay on Chinese SF, ‘China Dreams’, here.

‘One Day I Will Die on Mars’ by Paul Ford (Terraform). An ultra-short snapshot of a future where one particularly rapacious company controls all business – and through that, personal – life in New York and by implication the world. It’s horrific, humorous and prescient all at the same time. Packs a lot into a small space and well worth a read.

‘Targeted Strike 2: Judgement Database’ by Adam Rothstein (Terraform). Another ultra-short, smart piece, this time about censorship, violence and the exercise of power. I particularly liked the cut-up narrative style of this one, and again, there’s a savage amount of content conveyed in a relatively few words. Doesn’t seem right to call this enjoyable but it is.

‘The Damaged’ by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Interzone). An original and beautifully written take on the Frankenstein archetype, ‘The Damaged’ tells the story of Robin Kirkland, a bio-technician who works for a corporation that specializes in the production of AIs known as Playmatez. A playmate is designed to fulfil its owner’s wishes in every conceivable way. Only some of them come out damaged. Robin, damaged in her own way from the fallout of a failed relationship, becomes obsessed with finding out why. There’s a Bladerunner vibe to this story, which contains enough interesting material to fill a novel.

‘Black Paintings’ by James Smythe (Jurassic). This story, inspired by the titular Black Paintings by Goya, utilizes only the barest traces of the speculative, and tends more towards horror than SF, but I found it so good I had to include it. Its amoral businessman protagonist reminded me uncannily of John Law, the antihero of Tobias Hill’s 2004 near-future quasi-thriller The Cryptographer.

‘Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Solaris Rising 3). What you’d call a ‘list story’ creating its narrative through a number of individually detailed snapshots of a future journey into space. MacFarlane is shaping up to be a very fine writer, boldly inventive in her use of both language and form. You may also enjoy her lushly evocative ‘Because I Prayed this Word’ (Strange Horizons) and another of her distinctive list stories, ‘Pocket Atlas of Planets’  at Interfictions Online.

‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ by JY Yang (Strange Horizons). A short and beautifully evocative piece, set in the future. Memories are a precious commodity, but who gets to choose whose memories are preserved for the rest of us? I especially loved the way this story shifted focus at the end.

‘The Final Girl’ by Shira Lipkin (Strange Horizons). A short piece that explores similar territory to Daryl Gregory’s short novel We Are All Completely Fine, also out this year. I admired Shira Lipkin’s sideways approach to a story in her contribution to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and I admire it again here.  A nice piece of work.

‘The Fisher Queen‘ by Alyssa Wong (F&SF). A story of mermaids, and family history, and the Mekong river. It bites. I loved this from the first sentence. Superb.



‘The Devil in America’ by Kai Ashante Wilson ( If you only have time for one piece of new short fiction this month, please make it this one. A stunning piece of writing, ‘The Devil in America’ explores issues of racism, community, belief and spiritual heritage in post-Civil War America. It’s a riveting read. I hesitate to use the word ‘magical’ to describe a work that had me in tears at the brutality of the events portrayed, but that’s what it is. It’s not just about the past, either, as some recent events in America have shown. For me personally, the little touches of meta-fiction in the form of ‘tutor’s notes’ lifted this story even higher. For clearer insights and more information about this story, do read this interview with Kai Ashante Wilson at Rochita Loenen Ruiz’s books blog. (And Mr Wilson, please write us some more stories. Write a novel.)

‘A Litany of Earth‘ by Ruthanna Emrys ( How lovely to see the Cthulhu mythos turned on its head! Aphra Marsh is one of the few who survived the state action to purge the town of Innsmouth of its Elder families… Now, living what passes for a normal life in 1950s America, she is doing her best to remain unobtrusive and to put the worst of her memories behind her. But FBI agent Ron Spector has other ideas… This is a beautifully written piece of alt-mythos that is solidly entertaining as story and a deft piece of social (and literary) comment to boot. I enjoyed it a lot.

‘The 4th Domain’ by M. John Harrison (Kindle Single). Vintage MJH, simply stunning. If you liked The Course of the Heart you’ll love this.  End-times London, end-times narrator, seriously disturbed people. Rotting canal barges. Oh, and there’s some mythos-y-type stuff here, too, if you want to read it that way. Whichever way you read it, it’s a gem.

‘Reborn’ by Ken Liu ( This story is more ‘out there’ science fictionally than others I’ve read by Liu, and I liked it a lot. Liu’s style relies quite heavily on exposition, but there’s no harm in that when his stories are as compulsively readable as they are. ‘Reborn’ is a very deft story about colonization, and the ownership of one’s own memories and actions, be they good or bad. There are plenty of ideas in here, but the story also feels exciting to read, in a classic SF-thriller kind of way. Makes me eager to read Liu’s debut novel The Grace of Kings, which is due for release in April. You may very well also enjoy Liu’s alt-history short story  ‘The Long Haul’, which explores some related themes in a different way.



The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories). This is what I mean about works that get overlooked. Many more people should be talking about this novella. One of the most original and downright weird pieces of fiction I’ve read in ages, The Beauty is the story of what happens to men when women disappear from the world, victims of a mysterious fungal infection that leaves the surviving males aware that they will be the last of their kind. The novella focuses upon a small group, living as an alternative community in the Valley of the Rocks in North Devon. Our narrator, Nathan, is the community’s bard. He tells them stories about themselves, about the women they’ve lost, about the world as it was and will be. When that world begins to change in a manner not one of them could have imagined, he must chronicle that, too. Whiteley’s considerable skill as a writer is fully on display here – her language is simple but perfectly poised, there’s a kind of mythic reach, an oral history feel to it that brings it close to song. The story itself is simple too – and yet so complex, so layered and so ambiguous that it would take many pages to unpack it adequately. This novella should win stuff. Seriously, just read it.  Original work is being done. Here’s proof.

Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine (Wyrm). It seems I have a thing for doomed spaceship stories at the moment because I thought this was wonderful. Reminded me a lot of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages, which I read and loved in the autumn. Also Alien, although in this case the threat is more cousin-to-HAL than xenomorph. Amadis Reyes wakes from deep sleep aboard the Menkalinan. The rest of the crew are dead, she’s a full five years away from the ship’s pre-programmed destination, with insufficient supplies. Something is very wrong. This is a tense, compelling read, gorgeously written.

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion). If anything, Sriduangkaew’s use of language here is even more luxuriously dense and textured than in the two short stories I mentioned above. An urban fantasy different from any you’ll read this year, Scale-Bright is set in a Hong Kong where reality may reinvent itself in a second, and where ancient enmities between mythical beings are being fought out under the noses of the mortals who go unknowing about their daily business. Julienne is caught between those worlds – as well she might be, when her aunts are goddesses. The colours flare off the page. Like poetry, the text is intuited first through the senses, and only then understood through the lens of reason. Just superb writing.

The Last Log of the Lacrimosa by Alastair Reynolds (Subterranean). This novella is actually a fascinating counterpart to Dream Houses. With its classic SF vibe, it’s highly entertaining and the kind of story that reminds me of why I started reading science fiction in the first place. A shuttle has crash-landed on a more or less deserted ice-planet. Three adventurers (and a monkey – don’t forget the monkey because it’s important) answer a distress signal… Sounding familiar yet? Reminded me in every good way of Reynolds’s earlier novella Diamond Dogs, which was the first piece I read by him. Just the thing for a winter evening. (I was convinced they’d feed the captain to the Borg-monster at the end, though. Seriously.)

I’ve very much enjoyed immersing myself in short fiction these past couple of weeks, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing other people’s recommendations and ballots as Hugo season approaches.

In the meantime, don’t forget to nominate for the BSFA!

Ghosts of Christmas Past

The successful ghost story puts the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’

M. R. James


What is it with the British and their Christmas ghost stories? Despite resurgence in its popularity here in recent years, the Americans still do Hallowe’en better than us. Come midwinter though we are in our element. The idea that Christmas – and Christmas Eve in particular – should be the perfect time for gathering around the fire and taking it in turns to terrify the assembled company with ghoulish anecdotes seems so deeply rooted in British culture that it’s difficult to pin down exactly where it came from.

The most famous exponent of the tradition has to be M. R. James, the Cambridge don and antiquarian scholar who developed a passion for ghost stories and started writing his own to amuse himself and entertain his friends. It wasn’t long before his Christmas Eve readings – enlivened by some enthusiastic acting – became a highlight of the Cambridge year. The stories themselves are now seen as the mother-lode of English weird fiction, the standard by which all ghost writers since have been judged and often found wanting. M. R. James even had an adjective named after him: Jamesian, a word often used to describe a story characterised by an unsettling atmosphere of understated menace.

The Christmas ghost story didn’t start with M. R. James, though. His American namesake Henry James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, a full thirty years before the first publication of Montagu James’sCollected Ghost Stories. Henry James may have hailed from New York City, but he was an Anglophile at heart and eventually became a British citizen. The Turn of the Screw could be said to be the quintessential English ghost story and has probably been adapted for radio and screen more times than any other piece of weird fiction. It tells the story of an English governess and her battle to save her young charges from two particularly nasty apparitions. But the tale begins with a group of friends, gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve, telling each other ghost stories.

In other words, this business has been going on for centuries. There are those who insist it was Charles Dickens who started it all with his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who first appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Personally, I doubt it. Christmas is an odd time of year. There’s nothing like the claustrophobia of enforced jollity to bring a family feud bubbling to the surface, and the staff on duty at police stations and hospitals over the festive season will tell you that there are more murders, drunken brawls and relationship breakdowns at Christmas than at any other time of year. What else can you expect when people who don’t normally see each other from one end of the year to the next are shut up together for days on end with nothing to keep them from each others’ throats but the Queen’s Speech and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special?

The whole baby Jesus business is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in festival terms, anyway, and entirely the invention of the clerics. Before the Christian church got involved the traditional end-of-year junket used to be pagan, a kind of midwinter bacchanalia designed to deflect the Grim Reaper from his seasonal rounds. Could it be that our darker midwinter yearnings are actually a modern echo of this ancient custom? It’s interesting when you think about it: the very things that can make Christmas difficult – the cold, the dark, the glacial passage of time – are often dwelled upon in Christmas ghost stories and turned to creative advantage. Certainly the one thing that unites all members of a family, regardless of their age, gender or propensity to eat turkey, is the love of a good ghost story.

Weird fiction is a weird business, and it’s always fun to speculate about exactly where it came from and exactly why it does what it does. You won’t be surprised to learn that I love ghost stories, and that one of the things I still look forward to about Christmas is the wealth of ghost-related entertainment that’s usually on offer. I can’t remember precisely how old I was when I first discovered that along with the pigs-in-blankets and chestnut stuffing, Christmas also offered a televisual feast of ghoultide delicacies; I do know that no one else got so much as a glance at the special double issue of the Radio Times until I completed my investigations into what ghosts were haunting the schedules and when.

One has to get one’s seasonal priorities in order, and if any is more pressing than making sure The Hauntingisn’t going to clash with The Innocents I haven’t discovered it.

One thing you can say about the Christmas spirits: they tend to be a better class of ghost; if it’s vampires and werewolves you’re after, you’d better try Hallowe’en. When in 2002 the BBC commissioned a series entitledGhost Stories for Christmas, the format couldn’t have been simpler or more classic: Christopher Lee, seated in an armchair before an open fire, reading selections from M. R. James by the light of a guttering candle and not a staking or decapitation in sight. What’s more, it was a huge success. What the British have come to expect from their Christmas ghost stories is not buckets of blood but that indefinable frisson of Jamesian terror: footsteps in the snow, the wind moaning in the chimney, lamplight in an upstairs window. At the time M. R. James wrote them, his ghost stories were remarkable for featuring contemporary protagonists in modern settings. It is only with the passing of time that we have come to see them as deliciously romantic: the solitary professor, monk-like in his rooms, unwisely delving into arcane matters that would generally be best left alone… The haunted mezzotint, the copperplate handwriting on yellowed parchment, the repression of all rages and lusts behind a mask of punctilious Englishness – what most characterises the Christmas ghost story is an air of nostalgia.

In other words, we prefer our yuletide hauntings to be retro, with long shadows, and preferably in black-and-white.

Of course, childhood itself casts a long shadow, and those things that delighted and terrified us when we were younger can sometimes appear lacklustre and even dull when we encounter them again as adults. While thinking about and reading for this article I inevitably began to recall those films that were special for me, special because I’d never seen anything like them before, and with that irresistible taste of the illicit because I was only allowed to watch them in the first place because it was Christmas. Would they, could they possibly stand the test of time, and the burden of emotion they had been prevailed upon to carry? The only way to find out was to see them again, a venture I undertook with some misgivings. The nights were longer in childhood, and the films weredefinitely scarier. I wasn’t sure I wanted that illusion to get debunked.

My first encounter with M. R. James came when I was about eleven, when I saw Jacques Tourneur’s film Night of the Demon as part of a Christmas double bill of scary movies. Night of the Demon was made in 1957, so I suppose to my concerned parents it seemed pretty safe. The movie it was paired with, Freddy Francis’s 1975 film The Ghoul, was another matter. It was in colour, for a start, and it went on until well after midnight. It was agreed that seeing as it was Christmas I could stay up and watch Night of the Demon just as long as I went to bed straight afterwards.

Never one to go down without a fight, I made a huge fuss about not being able to see Peter Cushing as the mad Egyptologist with a cannibal son locked in the attic (what’s not to like?) but the truth is I was glad to have a get-out clause. I saw the trailer for The Ghoul more than once in the run-up to Christmas, and the sequence showing Don Henderson’s bloodstained feet creeping down the attic stairs was in and of itself enough to give me nightmares. Night of the Demon, with its country-house setting and clipped bourgeois accents, did seem safer, and in a good way.

At any rate, I reckoned I could handle it.

I’d reckoned without the Jamesian influence. In his foreword to the 1924 anthology Ghosts and Marvels, MRJ makes no secret of his personal formula for a successful ghost story:

Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way. Let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

This is the very essence of ‘Casting the Runes’, the original MRJ story Night of the Demon was based on. In fact James doesn’t let you see the demon at all except as a lithographic illustration. Luckily for both film-lovers and weird fiction enthusiasts, Jacques Tourneur had both the sense and sensibility to similarly understate his case when he made Night of the Demon. I don’t think I properly appreciated the cleverness of the story at the time of that early first encounter, but I do know that the atmosphere of the film, the sense of the not-quite-seen, the insistently threatened, the horror just around the corner terrified and transfixed me long before the final revelatory sequence on the railway line.

I had fond, fond memories of this film, and when I viewed it again recently I was delighted to discover that Tourneur’s Night of the Demon lived up to every one of my recollections and even surpassed them. Dr John Holden, the classic Jamesian sceptic, is personified with dapper brilliance by Dana Andrews as he pursues his ill-advised scholarly enquiry into the nature of evil, and Peggy Cummins shows a lot more backbone than the average fifties heroine as Joanna Harrington, the niece of the demon’s first victim. The script, rich in the dramatic conventions of the day, is finely wrought, and the central message of the story – that it is impossible to outrun your fate once it has singled you out – is conveyed with conviction and evident enjoyment of the ideas at stake. There are some genuinely frightening moments. Night of the Demon is not just a good scary movie; it is a great film, full stop.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw the Ealing Studios movie Dead of Night. I know only that it was during the Christmas holidays, and that the ‘haunted mirror’ segment scared the bejesus out of me. I hadn’t read Borges then, and the story’s premise – that a mirror might be more than just a sheet of window glass silvered with mercury, that it might be the gateway to a world of nightmare – was new to me and horrifying.

I’m ashamed to say that perhaps because this one sequence had made such an impression on me I could barely recall what happened in the rest of the movie. The surprise when I saw it again was therefore all the more marvellous.

Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1945 film Dead of Night was the first of what came popularly to be known as ‘portmanteau’ horror films, movies that take the form of a set of shorter, separate stories-within-the-story linked together by a framing narrative. Portmanteau horror is most (in)famously exemplified in the films of Amicus Studios, makers of the late, great Asylum, but this fascinating little subgenre has proved something of an unquiet spirit, revived in 1993 with Necronomicon and still more recently in the super little triptychs of Asian horror, Three Extremes andThree Extremes 2Dead of Night though was the original, and in many ways it remains the best. This film is now getting on for seventy years old, yet I was thrilled by its freshness, its vigour, its deft touches of modernism and ironic sense of humour. The movie looks superb, and showcases some fine acting, that of the young Michael Redgrave in particular. His portrait of a man on the edge of madness in the ‘ventriloquist’s dummy’ sequence is 24 carat.

One of the nicest things about Dead of Night is that as well as being a masterpiece of British cinema it is an archetypical reformatting of the classic Christmas ghost story. Here we have a group of friends, comfortably ensconced in the elegant drawing room of an English country house, telling each other scary stories as they attempt to unmask the secrets of the supernatural. A stranger arrives with the warning that they are all in danger, while a professional sceptic – Frederick Valk as redoubtable psychiatrist Dr van Straaten – seeks to reassure them of the omnipotence of science.

It seems curiously in keeping with the spirit of Christmas that its ghost stories often have a philosophical slant: do ghosts exist, is there life after death, is it possible to predict the future? There is almost as much talking as action in Dead of Night, a characteristic that is, once again, typically Jamesian.

The British are famous for their love of tradition, and woe betide those foolish enough to try messing with it. Christmas especially is a time when repetition tends to dominate over innovation, and perhaps that is why, where scary movies are concerned, we tend to keep recycling old favourites instead of experimenting with contemporary adaptations. There’s nothing wrong with the old favourites – as we have seen, quite the opposite – but to close the door on a haunted house simply because it’s new and therefore different would be to fossilize the canon, which would be a tragedy. The modern reworking of The Turn of the Screw screened for Christmas 2009 came under fire for being too explicit in its handling of the subject of child abuse. While it’s true that some might have to read Henry James’s original novella two or three times before grasping the darker implications of the story, it is also true that the molestation of minors does form the central tenet of that story, and I would have thought that one of the chief advantages of living in the modern age is that we are more accustomed to artists who say what they mean. I myself thought Sandy Welch’s adapted screenplay was inventive and thought-provoking.

I was similarly impressed by the new adaptation of what is perhaps M. R. James’s most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, commissioned by the BBC for Christmas 2010.  Whistle and I’ll Come to You was scripted by Neil Cross, who worked on the BBC TV MI5 drama series Spooks, and directed by Andy de Emony, who also directed the two classic Red Dwarf episodes ‘Rimmerworld’ and ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’. It upset a lot of devout Jamesians, mainly because it deviated rather substantially from the original text. There are more characters, for a start. You don’t find many women in M. R. James stories (it’s easy to forget that women were not made full members of Cambridge University until 1947, and MRJ’s college did not admit women until the 1970s) but Cross’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You gave Gemma Jones a central role as Alice, wife to John Hurt’s melancholic Professor Parkin and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this adaptation is that it gives its protagonist, James Parkin, a proper backstory. MRJ’s professors tend to exist in monastic seclusion. We cannot imagine them having families or sex lives, and the most interesting thing about them is their talent for stirring up ghosts. Hurt’s Parkin is a man with a past, grieving the loss of his life’s companion and racked by guilt for having to put her in a nursing home. The ghosts he stirs up are as much his own demons as the disembodied wraiths that, if we are to believe Monty James at least, are worryingly common along Parkin’s particular stretch of the Suffolk coast. The terror he experiences is all the more appalling for having its roots in Parkin’s personal reality.

I read the reviews of de Emony’s film with interest. I was delighted at the continuing passion expressed by so many viewers for the work of MRJ and for the tradition of the Christmas ghost story in general. But I have to say I had little sympathy for their proprietary insistence on textual rigidity. It’s important to remember that even the most controversial adaptation is just that: an adaptation, and does not affect the integrity of the original in the slightest. James’s stories never set out to be comfortable, and I found Neil Cross’s reworking to be beautifully imaginative, genuinely frightening (watch out for the bit when Alice’s hands come under the door!) and replete with a sense of elegiac Englishness that made it a truly satisfying dramatic experience. What I thought it proved – and far more convincingly than Jonathan Miller’s stiflingly dull 1968 adaptation of the same story – was how versatile the English ghost story is, and how timeless. James’s story is more than a hundred years old now, yet it is as popular today as it always was and perhaps more so. The fact that a screenwriter might choose to reinterpret it for our own time rather than slavishly reconstructing it as a period drama is in my view a measure of the love and respect still felt for these stories within our literary culture. I think M. R. James himself would be pleased and intrigued, to see how his work has endured and expanded in our collective imagination.

But it’s time to stoke up the fire now, I think. Our guests will be arriving soon, and I feel certain one of them at least will have a story to tell…

Happy Christmas, everyone!


(This piece was originally written for and appeared at the Starburst magazine website, December 2011.)

Aickman’s Heirs

I’m delighted to announce that my brand new story ‘A Change of Scene’ will be featuring in the anthology Aickman’s Heirs, edited by the very talented Simon Strantzas and to be published in the spring by Undertow Press.


When Simon first emailed me to ask if I’d like to submit a story for an Aickman tribute anthology he was putting together, I was thrilled. I was also a touch nervous – if there’s one writer I would mark out as an inspiration in the canon of what you might call ‘classic weird’, that writer would be Robert Aickman, and his stories are perfect as they are. They need no comment, no postscript – they need only to be read. What could I possibly have to add? I approached with caution.

In the event, ‘A Change of Scene’ was one of those rare stories that came to me almost complete, more or less as soon as I started to think about what I might write. No story writes itself, and I for one always tend to think that getting the initial idea is the easy part – pinning the bugger down on paper is where the real work lies. Even so, I counted myself lucky this time around as the two main characters seemed to create the story as they went along, simply by talking and interacting with one another. (It turns out there was a lot of buried history to be uncovered.) And there was the added bonus of knowing pretty much from the start how I wanted things (pretty much) to end.  Insofar as any story can be fun to write, this one was – very. I hope readers enjoy it.

I scarcely need add that most of the groundwork had already been done for me, by Aickman himself. As any Aickman fan will immediately see, ‘A Change of Scene’ is closely inspired by a particular story of Aickman’s, a story that is and always will be very close to my heart because it was my first introduction to his work. I hope I’ve done him proud – and if not that, then I hope at least I’ve done enough to make him chuckle…

I feel fortunate to be a part of this anthology. The full (and very fine) table of contents for Aickman’s Heirs is below:


Nina Allan – “Change of Scene”

Nadia Bulkin – “Seven Minutes in Heaven”

Michael Cisco – “Infestations”

Malcolm Devlin – “Two Brothers”

Brian Evenson – “Seaside Town”

Richard Gavin – “Neithernor”

John Howard – “Least Light, Most Night”

John Langan – “Underground Economy”

Helen Marshall – “Vault of Heaven”

Daniel Mills – “The Lake”

David Nickle – “Camp”

Lynda E. Rucker – “Drying Season”

Lisa Tuttle – “The Book That Finds You”

D.P. Watt – “A Delicate Craft”

Michael Wehunt – “A Discreet Music”

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: wrap-up

One of the problems with many anthologies – and the reason, I guess, why people often admit to only dipping into them rather than reading them through from cover to cover as unified texts – is that of unevenness. You get a couple of truly standout stories, a turkey or two maybe, and a whole bunch of what you might call so-so stories, enjoyable enough at the time of reading but not all that memorable. My own pet peeve with anthologies is that they often lack cohesion. What you get is a kind of grab-bag of odds and ends, with no real sense that the stories belong together, or make a coherent statement as a group. For me, an anthology should say something – about the theme or title of the book, about the writers who’ve been gathered together. The individual pieces should be strong in themselves, but they should also add up to something. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women does all these things.

In her introduction to the anthology, editor Alex Dally MacFarlane states that she wanted to take a snapshot of where science fiction – and by implication, science fiction written by women – is at at the present moment, the multiplicity and variety of worlds it seeks to inhabit. For me, she has succeeded admirably. She has succeeded not only in reflecting the breadth and excellence of the work that is being done, but also in gathering together a group of stories that, through the interplay of their themes and internal resonances, form a statement that is striking in its coherence.

In terms of the individual stories, the anthology has an amazingly high strike rate. Of the thirty-three stories included, only one flat-out didn’t work for me, with very few weak spots amongst the others. As for standouts, there are so many memorable stories here that I’m having trouble picking my favourites, but just for the record and in no particular order, here they are:

1) ‘The Science of Herself’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

3) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

4) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

5) ‘Enyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

6) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin

7) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

8) ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

This list could easily have been twice as long. Many of these stories will remain with me for a long time. As well as presenting me with work by writers I already know and admire, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women has highlighted the names of writers previously unknown to me whose work I shall definitely be seeking out in the future.  That is a marker of success all by itself.

Was there anything missing? Well, no anthology can contain everything, and every anthology must of necessity be shaped by the knowledge, ambition and personal taste of its editor – indeed that’s sort of the point. Given these caveats, I found the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women to be remarkably well balanced, containing, as per the old adage, something for everyone, pretty much. Looking back down the table of contents, it occurs to me that the anthology is a little short on hard SF. The single hard SF story contained here – Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ – is admittedly excellent, and highly original, but I do feel the anthology could have benefited from a little more hard SF input – off the top of my head, Linda Nagata, Madeleine Ashby and Tricia Sullivan spring instantly to mind as writers working in this particular area. Something else that strikes me is the shortage of British contributions. Of thirty-three writers, we have only one British (Tori Truslow) and one British-based (Zen Cho) writer on the slate. Given the high proportion of American and US-based writers represented, it would not have hurt to have a story by Gwyneth Jones, say, or Mary Gentle in the mix.  But these are minor quibbles.

As well as fulfilling its editor’s own mission statement, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is an important book for other reasons, too. Firstly, it tackles the whole ‘women don’t write science fiction’ bollocks head on, and wins by a knockout. I would lay money on the fact that anyone picking up this book – out of curiosity perhaps, or as a learning experience, or just looking for something new to read – would forget all about the ‘by women’ epithet within the space of a couple of stories. They’d be too busy enjoying the wide range of material on offer, and wondering where they could get more stuff by these writers. To anyone – male, female, publisher, reader, writer – stuck with that sneaking feeling that science fiction written by women ‘just isn’t their thing’, I would say get yourself a copy of this anthology and prepare to have all your assumptions blown out of the water.

The anthology also does great work in debunking the currently fashionable complaint that SF is exhausted. Compiling a Year’s Best must be the devil’s own job, and clearly it’s physically impossible these days to even hope to read every piece of SF short fiction published in a given year. But one of the issues I’ve seen aired about Year’s Bests in recent years is that the large majority of stories selected are culled from relatively few venues, and always the same venues, an editorial choice that is bound to result in a degree of sameness and even blandness, however honourable the intention otherwise. Hence the impression of science fictional exhaustion.  The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women isn’t a Year’s Best, of course – these works have been chosen from stories published over the past two decades – but it is noticeable and commendable to see twenty-five separate venues listed in the publication permissions credits. I would perhaps have liked to see a story or two coming from places outside the genre – but again, this is a small quibble, and overall the diversity of source venues is reflected in the stimulating diversity of the stories on offer here.

And almost as a bonus, we have the sheer quality of the writing. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who carps on about science fiction not being capable of the heights of literary expression and formal innovation reached in the sphere of mainstream literary fiction needs to read this book and then revise that opinion. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women offers abundant proof, if any were needed, that science fiction can do anything mainstream fiction can do and then some.

I’ve been on a wonderful journey with these stories. I recommend this book unreservedly, and I hope that once you have read it you will do the same.




The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #19

31) ‘Vector’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Out through the school gate, part of a crowd pouring out, you hope for familiar smells of roast pork and sticky rice, for colours you recognise: an old tree with a pink sash around it to mark the spirit within. Tiny plates of food at the base of a utility pole, to curry favour with any small god that might live in the wires or the concrete. It does no harm to put such things out. But they are superstitions and the farangs passing by smirk. A tourist more freckles than skin pauses to blink at it; her spectacles give off a flicker. Photo snapped and uploading, to be laughed at and rendered into a joke. Who believes in divinities so diminutive? 

In the near future, a young woman sacrifices her life to be turned into a computer virus, the ultimate post-human condition. Her country’s cultural landscape has been overwritten, used as a strategic stepping stone by a dominant power. As she readies herself to complete her mission, memories of her human life struggle to rise above the surface of an imposed reality:

She ascertains that she’s in a ruined hospital in Palangkaraya, basement level, far from home. It chills her until she remembers the distance is irrelevant, that come success or failure she will never leave this place. What remains of her will not survive being disconnected from the tank. 

All is anatta. Sangkarn is transient. She needs to let go. Panic rises anyway, even though she’s so detached from flesh that she should be beyond this choking terror, above this mindless fear of the grave.

This is impassioned, driven writing, with not a word wasted. The science fictional conceits merge seamlessly with the shifting layers of images worked from two opposing realities. ‘Vector’ constitutes a powerful fusion between feeling and meaning, thought and word, image and idea. I admire the strength of purpose in this narrative, which serves as a darker, angrier counterpart to de Bodard’s Immersion. This story has weight. It’s even better on a second reading.


32) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

I loved this piece – for me it had the feel of a novel in miniature – so much I was moved immediately to search for more information about it. Angelica Gorodischer is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for some time now, and ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ felt like the perfect introduction to her work. If it reminded me of anything it’s Jan Morris’s Hav, or even some of Roberto Bolano’s more discursive factioneering. The story is actually a single chapter from a longer work, Kalpa Imperial (go to this page and you’ll find some links to extracts from the book, also an interview with Gorodischer), a novel detailing the rise and fall and rise again of ‘the greatest empire that never was’. The ‘mountain city’ at the centre of this particular story is described – or more accurately word-painted – as a microcosm of history in flux. Kings, empresses, wars, artists, hucksters, armies – they all pass through the city and they all leave their mark, some more indelibly than others. Always, at the centre, the city herself, warping and changing but never quite laid low, inimitably herself in spite of the erosions wrought upon her by an unruly populace:

The mountains are buried under walls, balconies, terraces, parks; a square slants down, separated from a steep drop by stone arcades; the third floor of a house is the basement of another that fronts on the street above; the west wall of a government building adjoins the ironwork of a courtyard of a school for deaf girls; the cellars of a functionary’s grand mansion become the attics of a deserted building, while a cat flap, crowned with an architrave added 200 years later, serves as a tunnel into a coal hole, and a shelf has become the transept for a window with golden shields in the panes, and the skylight doesn’t open on the sky, but on a gallery of waterwheels made of earthenware.

The city as organism is a beloved theme among readers and writers of speculative fiction alike. Gorodischer’s work here is a fabulous addition to this particular canon. It’s a privilege to see a master at work.


33) ‘The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

…and my Beast came up to me one night and said: “Oh please, oh please, can you write me a story where Venus is like it was in old SF books, all waterworldy and with big fish and stuff?” (While I was writing Golubash, he said “oh, please, oh please, can I have a pony in it?” You can’t blame him, he’s been waiting for me to write SF for four years–exactly, in fact, as today is our anniversary–so it is a bit like getting a vending machine suddenly stocked with your favorite stuff. He just keeps mashing the buttons to see what will come out.)

(Catherynne M. Valente – extract from a post at Rules for Anchorites)

This is the story of the documentary film maker Bysshe, who goes to film the legendary callowhales of Venus. Lovely links and resonances with both Gorodischer’s story and Truslow’s. There’s as much New Weird here as there is science fiction – the story’s aesthetic brought Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film The City of Lost Children instantly to mind – but who cares about categorisation when the writing is this good? I love Valente’s work. Her imagination is so fluid, so fearless, and her command of language feels completely effortless, even though I know that isn’t the case, that prose like this has to be crafted and fought for every word of the way.

The levitator told her of a town called Adonis, a whole colony on Venus that vanished in the space of a night. Divers they were, mostly, subject both to the great callowhales with their translucent skin and the tourists who came to watch and shiver in cathartic delight as the divers risked their lives to milk the recalcitrant mothers in their hibernation. They built a sweet village on the shores of the Qadesh, plaiting their roofs with grease-weed and hammering doors from the chunks of raw copper which comprised the ersatz Venusian beach. They lived; they ate the thready local cacao and shot, once or twice a year a leathery ‘Tryx from the sky, enough to keep them all in fat and protein for months. 

I think I mentioned before how much I enjoy stories that contain found documents or pose as secret histories, fictitious biographies. This is one of those, and it is a beauty.


Well, that’s the last of our 33 stories. It’s been an amazing journey. Stay tuned for a wrap-up post, coming soon!

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #18

27) ‘Sing’ by Karin Tidbeck

On the off-world colony of Kiruna, a tailor, Aino, comes into contact with a scientist, Petr, who is visiting the colony in a research capacity. Petr finds himself increasingly drawn to what he sees as the honest simplicity of life on Kiruna, and enchanted by the seemingly miraculous singing abilities of the colonists. He is determined to discover their secret. Aino fears that such a discovery will destroy the growing bond between them.

He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and drew out something like a very small and thin book. He did something with a quick movement – shook it out, somehow – and it unfolded into a large square that he put down on the counter. It had the outlines of letters at the bottom, and his fingers flew over them. WHAT HAPPENED WITH SOUND?

I recognised the layout of keys. I could type. SAARAKKA, I wrote.  WHEN SAARAKKA IS UP, WE CAN’T HEAR SPEECH. WE SING INSTEAD. 


I shrugged.

He typed with annoyed, jerky movements. HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?

UNTIL IT SETS, I told him. 

This is a classic ‘curiosity killed the cat’ story. It’s also a story about acceptance, and difference, and coming to terms with who you are and where you fit in. The worldbuilding in ‘Sing’ is charming, and skilfully wrought, but in many ways the science fictional elements are incidental – this story could be set in any small community, anywhere. It’s the way people relate to one another here that make the story what it is: odd, with a quiet beauty, and just a little unnerving.


28) ‘Good Boy’ by Nisi Shawl

The invitation is entirely legitimate. Those who find the language in which it’s couched to be odd should refer to the available historical data on mid-twentieth century black musicians, specifically Sun Ra, Parliament, Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire. A notable space travel mystique developed around their work, and it is to honour its creative impetus that I’ve arranged for y’all to party up! Everybody party up! Come fly with me! I am the Mothership Connection. You have overcome, for I am here! 

On the planet of Renaissance, the City’s colonists are falling prey to a mysterious infirmity. The doctors are stumped. Ivorene McKenna has her own ideas about how to effect a cure, though there are those who disapprove, to put it mildly. When chaos breaks loose in the City, Ivorene is absent – but who’s that wearing her body? Her daughter Kressi is caught in the crossfire between the old and the new. The funk is risin.

Oh, this story! How it sneaks up on you. There’s no way it should work, but it so does. There’s everything in here from pulp to cyberpunk and seventies funkadelic. Fundamentally, this is a story about how the values and accumulated wisdom of the past have to be carried with us into the future, lest we forget who we are and undermine our spiritual foundations as a result. ‘Good Boy’ is tremendous fun – I was completely swept along by it. But it turns out to be genuinely interesting as science fiction, too, seizing upon tropes and reshaping them to create something entirely original, a law unto itself. Also, there’s music and dancing. Go party!


29) ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ by Thoraiya Dyer

Some lovely resonances here with Elizabeth Vonarburg’s ‘Stay Thy Flight’, and also with Nisi Shawl’s ‘Good Boy’, although the tone of this story could not be more different. The main character is a sphinx, but she’s definitely not chained to a pedestal. She’s stalking the world and she’s angry. She kills people who can’t answer her riddles, just by thinking at them. But who is she really, and what is her mission? As with the Nisi Shawl, ‘The Second Card of the Major Arcana’ is a story about how we accommodate the past within our vision of the future.

We descend into Beirut, a capital mismatched as an unsolved Rubik’s cube, so often wrenched apart and poorly put back together. No two pockets of any single alliance are placed handily together but instead separated suburb from suburb, street from street. Like the national draft, the strategy of melding disparate peoples is designed to create unity. 

Instead, it creates paralytic indecision.

The language of this story is rich and dense with imagery and symbol. My grasp of Middle Eastern history is scattershot, to say the least, so I know there will be plenty of references here that will have slipped by me. As a reading experience though, I found this work hugely satisfying. A thought provoking story, with prose to slay for. The ending, where fantasy morphs into science fiction, is brilliant.


30) ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ by Ekaterina Sedia

The Sea of Clouds is entirely contained by mountains, so high above the blue moon surface that the clouds fill the basin. Mermaids from all over the world make their yearly pilgrimage to this sea – they crawl over land, their tails trailing furrows in the blue dust, their breasts and elbows scuffed on the flat lunar stones. They leave traces of pale mermaid blood, its smell tinged with copper. 

So we’re back with mermaids on the moon, a nice echo here of Tori Truslow’s ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ and at this point in the anthology I’m really liking the way these resonances between the stories have been set up. ‘A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas’ is what’s known as a list story – the narrative taking the form of a series of shorter mini-stories that together form an over-arching whole. Sedia’s tales of the lunar seas run parallel in some ways with Hao Jingfang’s invisible planets, and thence with Marco Polo’s journey through the invisible cities. Sedia’s magical realism is nuanced, wry and charming, thrumming with beautiful images and engaging ideas. Yet I cannot help wanting a little more from my ideal list story than this. There is no story here, not really, and these twenty sparkling parts do not exactly add up to a whole. Still lovely to read, though.




The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #17

25) ‘Immersion’ by Aliette de Bodard

You hear them negotiating, in the background – it’s tough going, because the Rong man sticks to his guns stubbornly, refusing to give ground to Galen’s onslaught. It’s all very distant, a subject of intellectual study; the immerser reminds you from time to time, interpreting this and that body cue, nudging you this way and that – you must sit straight and silent, and support your husband – and so you smile through a mouth that feels gummed together. 

You feel, all the while, the Rong girl’s gaze on you, burning like ice water, like the gaze of a dragon. She won’t move away from you, and her hand rests on you, gripping your arm with a strength you didn’t think she had in her body. Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinnamon – no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life. 

‘You have to take it off,’ she says. You don’t move, but you wonder what she’s talking about.

‘Immersion’ is the other of the two stories in this volume that I’ve read before, when it first came out.  Reading it again now, it comes across even more powerfully. As an example of a particular kind of science fiction – the social allegory – it is pretty much perfect.

There are strong resonances here with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s story ‘Dancing in the Shadow of the Once’. The immersers in de Bodard’s story work similarly to the augmentations in Loenen-Ruiz’s, only in the opposite direction, interpreting and normalising a culture that is foreign to the wearer, rather than acting as a conduit for suppressed memories. Both stories though speak of oppression, of the devastating impact on individuals and on a whole people when one culture imposes itself upon another, no matter how beneficently.

De Bodard evokes her world with skill and although one could not describe this story as action-packed, plenty happens nonetheless. I especially loved Tam. I think she should have a whole book to herself…


26) ‘Down the Wall’ by Greer Gilman

They’ve come into a wide square, set with shattered baulks of stone: a great cat with a muffled head, a riven owl, a witch in flinders. There are fires here and there, some leaping and some embers, ashes. Some long cold. And some a-building: leaves and boxes, doors and drawers and random trash. Children heap frail crazy towers: sticks stacks crows’ nests, all to burn. Some run with brands, they leap and whirl them in a swarm of sparks. They write great fading loops of spells. Three drag a gnarled branch to the fires, its dry and leafy fingers clagged with tins, as many as the rings on a witch’s hand. And still it scrabbles, rakes for more. 

This is a night-fantasia, Mervyn Peake on speed, Gustav Dore drawn in words. You could quote from anywhere in this story and it would be uniformly exquisite, universally sublime. ‘Down the Wall’ is a work of poetry, really – its connection with any usual style of prose narrative is tendentious at best. If I were to compare it with music (which I feel driven to, inevitably), which work would it remind me of most? ‘A Night on the Bald Mountain’ by Modest Mussorgsky, of course. Dance, witch, dance.

Greer Gilman is a magician. Her use and love of language is as ferociously advanced as anything in mainstream literary fiction, and then some. What a voice. I was lucky enough to hear her talking on a panel at this year’s Worldcon. The discussion was about favourite sentences. Gilman chose a line from Andrew Marvell. Way to go. I am lost in awe.


Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #16

24) ‘Semiramis’ by Genevieve Valentine

A climate change story. Global warming has precipitated a catastrophic rise in sea level. Many major cities and some whole countries are already underwater, and the disaster is still in motion. Some things remain the same, however, and the greed and short-termism of business corporations is one of them. Two workers at the the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway plan a minor insurrection.

i pick some seeds that will grow in any soil (as dumb as it is, I still want to plant something, once, and watch it grow). I pick some seeds because they’re rare enough to make a decent bribe if things go south.

I pick a bird of paradise, a seed with a sharp red tuft, for no reason except that it’s been ten years since I’ve seen something red; the Aurora is yellow and green, and the rest of the world is the tight dark of seeds, and the envelopes paler than skin.

A fascinating story,  and Valentine’s writing is watertight as always. But something was lacking here, for me.  The overall tone of the narrative is rather cold, rather blank, and whilst I’m sure the writer did not take this decision lightly, for me at least the urgency of the theme seemed diminished by it. Also, this was one of those occasions where I would have greatly welcomed some more background detail – for a story where theme is key, this was all too elliptical. ‘Semiramis’ is a good story, but the diffidence of the (mysteriously annoying) protagonist left me feeling lukewarm about it.


The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #15

23) ‘£nyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

I fell in love with Hurley’s writing when I read God’s War, and this nasty, brutish and regrettably short story reminds me in every which way of why. Enyo is a – well, what is she? Terrorist, murderer, mercenary, escaped prisoner, fugitive, just desperate to get away? Anyway, she’s in charge of an organic satellite-thing stuffed with illegal alien biotech, employed by a dubious outfit to map the outlying and probably dangerous areas of a neighbouring system. It’s one dodgy gig. Plus the satellite needs regular feeding. This cannot end well.

She had stopped worrying where the body had come from, or who it had been. Her interest was in pondering what it would become when they reached its destination. She lost track of time in these intimate reveries, often. After half a rotation of contemplation, Reeb would do a sweep of the satellite. He would find her alive and intact, and perhaps he would go back to playing screes or fucking one of the engineers or concocting a vile hallucinogen the gelatinous consistency of aloe. They were a pair of two, a crew of three, picking up rim trash and memories in the seams between the stars during the long night of their orbit around the galactic core. 

This story has the festering, Gigerish outlines of what might be termed Alien-punk: corrupt organisations and lethal technology,  hardened professionals of dubious reputation, outcasts and stowaways gone to the bad, or sold to the worse. It’s stunningly written. It’s sad and frightening all at once. It’s everything I enjoy. More set in this world, please!


The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #14

22) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

I really loved this one, mainly because of its powerful narrative voice. Keisha lives in Nashville, out by the interstate. She tells us about her neighbours and her cousins, the kids down the street she likes to hang out with. But something odd is happening to her neighbourhood. There’s talk of a death. Strangers drive by in a silver Buick, asking for directions to a beauty parlor that doesn’t exist. Keisha is curious about that. She feels drawn to these people in ways she can’t explain:

Actually, I could sympathise. Sorta. Not that Momma’d ever let me get my hair done in a beauty salon at my age, but one of my grandfathers used to own a barber shop. I couldn’t remember which grandfather, though. Grandmommy never talked about her ex-husband, and I’d only met him once when me and Daddy ran into him at Farmer’s Market. Nobody really discussed Daddy’s family either. All I knew about his father was that he had water-wave hair, and that he didn’t have no grays when he died. One of my grandfathers was a postman, and one owned the barber shop. I got them mixed up. Actually, I’m not sure about the postman thing, neither. I think I remembered hearin it one time.

As history becomes more insistent, Keisha becomes more distressed. Pieces of the world are going missing and she is desperate to recover them before any more people or streets or buildings disappear. ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ is a perfect piece of slipstream: lyrical, intense and persuasive. It’s about the importance of history and finding your place in it. It’s about identity and how the forces of history can conspire to take it away from you.  I turned the last page, hoping for more, but I’d reached the end. This is a story to carry with you, a story to keep.