Category Archives: news

From Peterborough… to Paris!

Fantasycon this year was in Peterborough, a city I’d never previously visited and a venue – The Bull hotel – that I was particularly keen to spend time in as it was the site of Chris’s very first Eastercon, back in 1964.

A great weekend, and with just a couple of days’ turnaround – scarcely time to repack my luggage – I’m about to head out again, this time to Paris!

I’m on a month’s writing residency – a unique window of time in which to read, research, come to know a fantastic city a little better and most of all, to get into gear for writing my next book. I shall also be doing a bit of promotion for the French edition of The Race, which was published last month. If you happen to be in Paris on October 10th, why not come along to Librairie Charybde, where I’ll be taking part in an evening event with Carola Dibbell, whose extraordinary near-future novel of a post-pandemic America, The Only Ones, I’ve just finished reading. (Yet another example, if any were needed, of why the Clarke Award should be opened to US-published novels…)

I’m intending to blog as usual while I’m away, so watch this space. In the meantime, it’s back to the packing, and huge thanks to my wonderful French publishers, Editions Tristram, and La Maison de la Poesie for arranging such a marvellous opportunity.

And now: thinking about Strange Horizons

As some of you may know, Strange Horizons are currently in the thick of their annual fund drive. Strange Horizons, one of the longest-running speculative fiction magazines on the internet, is staffed entirely by volunteers. Profits from the fund drive are spent on paying writers, expanding the scope and variety of current content, and initiating new projects.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was Strange Horizons that inspired me to get back into writing science fiction criticism. From the moment I first became aware of the magazine in the middle 2000s, the quality, diversity and insight of SH’s critical content was a stand-out for me. I’ve now been reading Strange Horizons regularly for a decade (gulp) and I’ve seen the range and depth of its coverage increase, gaining new confidence and insight year on year. Strange Horizons now boasts a quite remarkable roster of reviewers, both old (and not so old) regulars and an increasing number of new voices. I am enormously proud to be one of them. Again, it is no exaggeration to say that I cannot imagine the landscape of SFF without Strange Horizons.

Please give what you can to keep this remarkable institution running – or help by spreading the word. A growing number of our most inspirational fiction writers can count a sale to Strange Horizons as their first published story. As a reader, writer and critic, I know i’ll keep returning to Strange Horizons, that that first glimpse of the new issue will continue to be a highlight of every Monday.

Just in case you need more convincing, here is a brief selection of some of my personal SH highlights in critical writing from 2017 so far:

The Unthinkability of Climate Change: thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement by Vandana Singh. Possibly the most important essay Strange Horizons has yet published.

Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War edited by Douglas Lain by Samira Nadkarni. Again, a vital piece of work, raising important questions about the Western-centric nature of so many SF dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios and war writing generally.

Blair Witch by Shannon Fay. As a massive fan of the original film, and one who still can’t quite believe this pointless sequel was even green-lighted, I found Fay’s analysis highly enjoyable and critically spot on.

Alien: Covenant by Mazin Saleem. Still on film, I’ve rarely had more fun reading a review, especially a review of a film I hated. Saleem’s knowledge, sense of irony and sheer joy in his subject matter is a rare delight. For another side of Saleem’s criticism, see his equally excellent review of Hassan Blasim’s anthology Iraq+100.

The Queue by Bazma Abdel Aziz by Gautam Bhatia. I’ve not read this book yet but it is very much on my reading list, and I can’t not mention Gautam Bhatia, who is one of the finest critics on SH’s roster. I live in hope that he will agree to be a Sharke when the Sharkes swim again because that would be something to see…

Thank you, Strange Horizons, and all who sail in her. Here’s looking forward to another year of great fiction, great criticism, great SFF.

Wonderful Copenhagen

We’ve just returned from Copenhagen, and a highly enjoyable weekend as the guests of Fantasticon 2017. It was a great pleasure to meet and talk to Danish writers, translators, scholars and fans of SFF. The weekend will be remembered as the weekend I finally got around to reading Rogue Moon (more on that later, I hope) and also as the weekend I began to regain my appetite – understandably in abeyance at the end of a pretty intensive period of reading and reviewing – for SF discussion.

In particular I would like to thank:

Lars Ahn Pedersen, for inviting us to be guests in the first place and for his exemplary organisational skills.

Jan Pedersen, Henrik Harksen and Dennis Rosenfeld, whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of their subject matter made our discussions of H. P. Lovecraft two of my most enjoyable panel experiences to date.

Niels Dalgaard, for his work in translating a generous handful of my short stories for the collection published to coincide with this year’s Fantasticon.

Flemming Rasch, for very generously gifting us each a space pen, an item of stationery that has already proved miraculously efficient in taking notes at difficult angles – I never knew how much I needed one of these until I had one!

And last but by no means least, the members of the manned space flight panel, who unwittingly and entirely unexpectedly might have given me the key inspiration for my next novel.

We had a great time, in a beautiful city. Thanks to everyone involved!

Obsolescence

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

Eibonvale chapbooks alert – call for submissions!

I had dinner with David Rix of Eibonvale Press when I was in London last week, and we spent a pleasurable couple of hours catching up on book news. David has been busy hatching plans as usual, and I was particularly delighted to hear that he’s going to be publishing a new line of chapbooks, and that he’s opening for submissions right now.

There’s something beautifully satisfying about a chapbook. Their small size makes them easily portable, their generally lower cover price means you can take a chance on a writer you might not have come across before, and their restricted word count makes for an intense and satisfying reading experience, a total immersion in story that isn’t always possible with a novel, where you usually have to keep breaking off to do other things. A chapbook can be consumed in a single sitting, and can often resonate more powerfully as a result.

Possibly my most memorable chapbook reads of recent years have been Alison Moore’s ‘The Harvestman’, and M. John Harrison’s ‘Getting Out of There’, both from Nightjar Press, who have been putting out wonderful chapbooks for a number of years now.

With the new Eibonvale chapbooks line, David is particularly keen to hear from new voices, so anyone who’s been holding back a story, not quite sure where to send it, this could be the ideal place! David loves dark, strange fiction with an experimental edge, the weirder the better. He’s looking for individual, standalone stories of around 10,000 words in length, so plenty of room for things to get interesting.

And as it has suddenly occurred to me that I have never yet seen my work published in chapbook form, I might very well be submitting something myself…

You can read the Eibonvale press release here, and download the full submissions guidelines, including information on format and payment, here.

I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of stories this call brings forth!

Why it matters

“The big one, though, is that representation matters: a female Doctor will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero. There’s a video going round Twitter at the moment of a girl, perhaps nine years old, watching the BBC as the casting is revealed, completely silent until the very end. Only then does she turn to the camera with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and scream, “The new Doctor’s a girl!” That is why this is a great day, right there.”

(Jonn Elledge, New Statesman.)

The Rift is open!

My second novel The Rift is published today. Huge thanks to the team at Titan for taking such sensitive care of the manuscript and for bringing the book out into the world – you are wonderful people.

For those in the Glasgow area, I shall be launching The Rift formally at Waterstone’s Argyle Street this Thursday, July 13th at 18:30 pm.  Neil Williamson (The Moon King) has very kindly agreed to act as questionmaster? interrogator? and there will be a chance to ask your own questions afterwards.

For those not lucky enough to live in Scotland, I will also be signing copies in London at Forbidden Planet, Friday July 28th 6 – 7 pm.

Once again, a huge thank you to the many wonderful friends and colleagues who have offered their unstinting encouragement and support as The Rift journeyed towards publication.  No book ever happens in a vacuum, and the discussions, deliberations and free-ranging book-chats that happen along the way are often among the most rewarding parts of the process. Thank you all.

Our Pavilion

Last Friday, we had the excitement and privilege of being able to participate in a ‘hard hat tour’ of Rothesay Pavilion, which is currently undergoing a major programme of redevelopment – read rescue project – prior to its scheduled reopening in July 2019. 

The pavilion was designed in the 1930s by James Andrew Carrick, son of Ayr architect James Carrick, a noted practitioner of Arts and Crafts style. The pavilion opened in 1938, its clean Art Deco lines providing a startling and significant addition to Rothesay’s traditionally Victorian seafront architecture.  Carrick’s design is thought to have been inspired by the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which opened in 1935 as one of the very first Modernist buildings in Britain. An art exhibition space, cinema and seafront cafe, the magnificently refurbished De La Warr was a venue we visited often and with great pleasure when we lived in Hastings. When we discovered she had a ‘cousin’ in Rothesay we were delighted.

Carrick went on to design two more iconic buildings on Scotland’s west coast: the Cragburn Pavilion in Gourock and the ice rink in Ayr. Sadly both of these are already lost to us, making Rothesay Pavilion three times more precious and worthy of preservation.

Although the exterior of the building looks rather the worse for wear at present, a sizeable amount of important work has already taken place inside – removing hazardous materials, securing the structure – in preparation for the major second phase of building works that are due to begin in the autumn.

The new Rothesay Pavilion will be a vital community space as well as a major arts and music venue, a youth training facility, an important source of inspiration and revenue for the island, a slice of the town’s history reborn. It’s a thrilling project and a thrilling prospect, and huge thanks are due to the Rothesay Pavilion registered charity‘s artistic director and CEO Julia Twomlow and to project manager Peter McDonald for hosting such an instructive and hands-on tour.

You can even see some live footage of our explorations at the Rothesay Pavilion Facebook page!

It’s a long way to Inverary

‘The Sharkes Discuss.’ With Helen Marshall, Inverary Castle, May 27th 2017.

“But the more we talked the more I sensed that DeWitt’s greatest heartbreak had come from the place that had first changed her life: Oxford. After a decade as a student and lecturer with no end to her distinctions and a thesis completed on the concept of propriety in ancient criticism, she had hoped Oxford would give her the sort of freedom that had allowed historians like Ronald Syme to write an epic work like The Roman Revolution. But Oxford had changed: Thatcherization, credentialization, Americanization, i.e., the pursuit of narrow specialties in the name of job-seeking. She realized she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.”

This from a fantastic article by Christian Lorentzen in Vulture on the writer Helen DeWitt. The piece resonated on several levels, reminding me simultaneously of myself a quarter-century ago, thinking about Nabokov in the library at Corpus, the passage I quoted in my review of Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality for the shadow Clarke, the often embattled situation of women modernists and post-modernists in general.

Oxford didn’t break my heart – I was too preoccupied with other matters to let it get sufficiently into my head and under my skin. I do remember very clearly though a discussion I had with some American students in the Dome on Little Clarendon Street immediately after a lecture, in which I stated the theories of Bakhtin and Saussure were all very interesting, but they had nothing to do with how a text actually came into being.

“The text is all that matters,” I said, to shocked expressions. That the text is paramount is something I still believe, more or less, although I barely grasped what I was trying to articulate back then, the tensions such a view might excite.

Perhaps that’s one of the qualifications you most need to be a writer: to understand that a particular view might be controversial, but to write it down anyway, or at least try to. The better part of writing is instinct, gut feeling, abiding by the truth of what drew you to setting words on paper in the first place. Intellectual justification and brinkmanship, a more precise academic understanding of your position vis a vis your detractors (I almost wrote ‘distractors’ there, which seems very telling) – these things can come later, if they’re important to you. The text is the thing.

I saw a blog post the other day adjuring writers to ‘write responsibly’. I understand what that person meant and that they meant it well but seriously, writers, don’t. Write responsibly, I mean. That way mediocrity lies.

*

Passing through into the second phase of the shadow Clarke project has been a fascinating, exhilarating and often perplexing experience. The narrowing of our focus – just the six officially shortlisted texts now to discuss between us – has led us into some intense and hugely exciting discussions on criticism in general, its value and aims. No two Sharkes think exactly alike, but our mutual passion for the subject and our general agreement regarding its importance has tended to unite us far more strongly than any individual difference in emphasis has had the potential to divide. For myself, what I am coming away with most of all is an increased awareness of my own approach as but one point on a spectrum and a point that is by no means static at that. As always, the unflagging support and enthusiasm my fellow Sharkes continue to show for this project is a powerful source of inspiration and insight and I cannot even begin to express the gratitude I feel for their marvellous company on this occasionally precarious voyage of discovery.

*

The investment of time, not to mention energy both intellectual and emotional that has been necessary to keep the Sharke swimming has meant less time for this blog, for which I apologise, although plenty has been going on behind the scenes. I have recently – just two weeks ago in fact – completed work on what I hope will be the final draft of a new novel, a work I’m very excited about and will post more about here in due course. I also have a brand new novelette just up at Clarkesworld magazine. ‘Neptune’s Trident‘ is the first story I’ve written with a specific connection to the west coast of Argyll and I’m delighted to see it in print. This story began life in the weeks immediately following the US elections, and I think those scars are visible – in fact I think they’re what ‘Neptune’s Trident’ is mostly about.

We are continuing to relish and draw strength from our new surroundings. We love Rothesay, we love our island, we’re happy and proud to make our home and our life in Scotland. The skies are incredible here – like nowhere I’ve been. For most of the past month I’ve had to drop everything I’m doing at the requisite time just to watch the sunset. Eleven-thirty pm and there is still a fugitive, slate-blue light in the sky. I gaze out over the firth and I worry about the upcoming election and I plan my next book, which will be all about here. This is what I’m doing right now.

Free Willy!

Delighted to announce that my weird cosmic London story, Maggots, has been nominated in the novella category of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards. This is hugely exciting for me, firstly because I’m very fond of this story (published as part of the Solaris haunted house anthology Five Stories High) and secondly because, as always, the Shirley Jackson shortlists form a veritable showcase of what is new, interesting and excellent in dark and weird fiction. I am especially pleased to see stories by Irenosen Okojie and Camilla Grudova nominated, and the novel shortlist – including works by Emma Cline, Eleanor Wasserberg and Iain Reid – is particularly strong and imaginative this year. Well done, judges!

You can see the full line-up of nominees here – do yourself a favour and order something from it this weekend.