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Best of the Year 2016 Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elephant in the room

As part of his recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh recently expressed his concern that climate change as a subject matter is not being adequately covered or even taken seriously by ‘serious’ novelists:

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

He goes on to assert that the bulk of the literature that enjoys critical ascendancy today is indeed a literature of concealment, the skill of its writers directed towards foregrounding quotidian ultra-realism at the expense of more extraordinary and therefore less realistic narrative events, that the art of the modern novel is all about filler material:

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background … while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

It’s a fascinating theory, and would be all the more fascinating, perhaps, if it had a greater basis in reality. The science fiction reader and writer will rightly take issue with Ghosh, reeling off an ever-expanding list of novels from the past decade and much further back than that in which climate change is the fulcrum, the driver, the core subject matter. That Ghosh has specifically chosen to exclude science fiction from the debate is both weird and frustrating. ‘When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss’, Ghosh writes. He can think of only a handful of novelists – Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan and TC Boyle chief among them – that have engaged with the subject directly. Moreover:

It could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

Ghosh seems very preoccupied with the concept of ‘seriousness’, as well he might be. But is Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels truly a less ‘serious’ novel than Rachel Cusk’s Transit? Is J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World less worthy of literary analysis than Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils? As a proposition, this is clearly ridiculous, and leads one to wonder exactly what Ghosh – himself a previous winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award – is trying to say here. That literary fiction of a certain stripe does not see fit to concern itself much with current affairs, perhaps? He goes on to present another mildly diverting theory: that ‘serious’ writers are themselves imaginatively imprisoned by the assumptions and material trappings of our toxic, carbon-emitting global economy, that they have driven themselves (literally) into a place of such complicity that overt criticism or even discussion has become impossible. While it may be true that anyone living within a society and not actively campaigning against the injustices it supports is complicit with it to an extent, as Ghosh himself concedes, most contemporary writers across a wide variety of backgrounds and literary interests point precisely to climate change (alongside racism, social inequality and the obduracy of the political class) as the subject that most preoccupies them on a daily and often hourly basis.

No. What concerns Ghosh most seems grounded within this concept of seriousness, the perceived suitability of climate change as a subject for serious fiction. It’s fine for writers to talk about climate change in interview or other forms of non-fiction, Ghosh maintains, but write a novel about it and you’ll be given the side-eye by the broadsheet critics or – worse still – no eye at all:

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

Ghosh’s essay is, as one would expect, thoughtful, concerned and well meaning. But once one begins to deconstruct it, one cannot help wondering why he didn’t go one step further and ask himself what this mansion of his actually stands for, and whether the reverence he affords it might not be part of the problem? If the ‘serious’ fiction he so desperately wants climate change to be ‘acceptable’ to as a subject matter has not always been conservative, reflective of societal norms rather than challenging to them? Whether it is hailed as serious by establishment elites precisely because it is happy to be non-confrontational, shunted off down the side-streets of political relevance, to write about the past rather than the future?

Ghosh talks about a ‘feedback loop’, a chicken-and-egg situation in which climate change is not deemed serious as a subject matter ergo few serious novelists write about it ergo it is not deemed serious etc etc etc  What he does not acknowledge is that in writing this essay, he is himself contributing to a feedback loop that dismisses science fiction literature as inherently generic, not-serious, and therefore unworthy of consideration within the context of this discussion. That by concentrating his attentions upon an area of literature that is at least partially susceptible to propping up outmoded and often damaging value systems, he is himself playing into the hands of the ‘men at the mansion’ who must, after all, find it pretty convenient to see works of literature that seek actively to question our current code of values and their impact upon our planet dismissed as a bunch of hacks writing about aliens.

The solution, for serious writers, is to stop hammering on the mansion door and have a look at what’s going on beyond the electronic barrier fence.

The serious fiction about climate change Ghosh is seeking is in plentiful supply, growing in breadth and complexity all the time. If only Ghosh could shift the goalposts of his ‘seriousness’, he would see that immediately.

(If anyone wants me, I’ll be in the out-house writing ghost stories.)

Clarke discussions ongoing

“Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.” 

This from Jonathan McCalmont’s Thought Projections 2, which (scroll towards the bottom of the page) includes a substantial rumination on the current state of the critical hinterland of genre literature. A more robust and well articulated grasp of the situation would be hard to imagine, and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these matters to read McCalmont’s piece in its entirety.

Meanwhile,  critic and former Clarke juror Martin Petto has been gathering his own thoughts in a series of posts on the structure and administration of the award, the composition and reception of its shortlists, and how the Clarke functions as a barometer of British SF publishing. Parts 1 and 2 are already up and well worth your time.

EDIT: Add to the above this wonderful post by Gareth Beniston at Dancing on Glass. Almost gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it..?

#weird 2016: My Top Ten Horror Stories

An essay of mine went up at Strange Horizons yesterday, in which I mull over the state of British horror and where we might be going with it. As part of that mulling-over, I took issue with a certain horror editor’s Top Ten list of favourite horror stories. For me, it seemed staid and just a little bit dull, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. I also acknowledged how difficult it is to compile such a list, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. Should we pick the stories that happen to be our favourites right now, or should we actively tend towards the conservative, selecting the works that have haunted our memories for decades, those stories we return to imaginatively again and again when we think about what most delights us in horror fiction?

A little of both, maybe. And fair is fair – if I’m going to pick holes in someone else’s list, it’s only right that I put up a top ten list of my own, to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. There will doubtless be some who think I don’t go far enough in challenging the status quo here, just as there will be others who simply can’t believe I’ve not happened to choose one justifiably classic author or another. But that is exactly what these kind of lists are for, isn’t it? Discussing our choices, and hopefully challenging our perceptions of the subject in question. The main thing is that we have a conversation.

So who is my list for, primarily? At the most cursory level, I’d say it was for any horror reader or writer who feels curious about what kind of stuff another horror reader and writer happens to be into – you’ll get a pretty good idea of who I am as a horror fan from reading this list. I’d also say it’s for new writers: here is my best summary of the kind of work you need to be paying attention to if you want to get an idea of what horror is about and how you might fit into it. These ten works will give you a pretty good idea of the journey horror literature has been on and how it’s evolved. (It goes without saying that other fans, editors and writers might have differing opinions on exactly who is most important here and why.) I would also like to think that this list might be a starting point for people who think they don’t like horror: read the stories on this list, and perhaps you’ll end up with a pretty good idea of why you might have been wrong, and where you might go next to feed your growing enthusiasm.

Who knows – you might even end up compiling a list of your own…

And so here goes with my top ten. I’m going to try and lay these out in the order I might arrange them if I were editing an anthology:

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907). This is a classic work of English weird fiction. Two friends travel down the Danube in a rowing boat and become ever more fixated upon the landscape they pass through, convinced of its malignancy and possessed by it. An incredibly modern, prescient work of cosmic horror. Lovecraft admired this story tremendously and for me it signals the passage from the more buttoned-up, Jamiesian type of Victorian ghost story to the psychological idiom. A story that can be savoured time and again.
  2. The Ruins of Contracoeur by Joyce Carol Oates (1999). Joyce Carol Oates is thought of by most people as a mainstream literary writer. In fact, she’s one of the most important horror writers working today. A good chunk of her output – story collections such as Haunted, novels such as the Stoker-winning Zombie and the epic vampire novel Bellefleur – is specifically horror anyway, but more than that, everything she writes carries more than a touch of the gothic. Together with Iris Murdoch, I would have to cite JCO as the writer who lies closest to my heart, the writer I turn to when I want to regain a sense of where I stand as a writer. It’s hard to pick just one story to list here, but I’m going with this marvellous novella, a weird and unnerving offshoot from Bellefleur, because it’s the first Oates I ever read and it made me fall in love with her writing there and then. For a neat introduction to Oates and her importance to horror, I’d recommend this great little essay by Paula Guran.
  3. Welcomeland by Ramsey Campbell (1988). Arguably the most important British horror writer of the postwar era, Ramsey Campbell’s stories and novels carry echoes of the earlier weird fiction that has clearly worked a profound influence upon their author. Yet they are also grimly, often brutally of today: angst-ridden, bleak, alienated and genuinely terrifying. No one explores despair – both existential and circumstantial – like Campbell, and this story of a man returning to his home town bears all his trademark themes. Campbell’s layered use of language to create a sense of entrapment is pretty much unique in all of horror and I would say it’s essential for anyone interested in writing horror to read him. (NB: He can also be really funny.)
  4. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931). I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft a lot recently, and rereading him a bit, and I’m coming to the conclusion that this ‘terrible wordsmith’ business of which he is routinely accused is received opinion: people keep saying it, therefore it must be accurate. But whilst it’s true that HPL does not always know when to end a sentence, and he’s not so good on dialogue, when you go back to the writing itself, you’ll perhaps be surprised to find how evocative, precise and beautiful it often is. Take this passage here from At The Mountains of Madness: ‘The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring. Great barren peaks of mystery loomed up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind, whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.’ Because so much of contemporary western horror literature arises from Lovecraft, I would say that insofar as anything is essential reading for anyone interested in horror fiction, Lovecraft is it. (And pssst – his stories are highly entertaining.)
  5. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948). As with Iris Murdoch’s early fiction, I’m always amazed when I’m confronted by the date-stamps on Shirley Jackson’s stories, because their ethos is so fiercely, so uncompromisingly modern. ‘The Lottery’ truly is a horror classic, and whilst its by no means the oddest or even the best of her stories, it’s a wonderful introduction to the art of a writer who could perhaps be described as the Katherine Mansfield of horror, bringing strange fiction out of the gentleman’s club and into the home. (In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s own 1912 story ‘The Woman at the Store‘ could itself easily qualify for inclusion on this list.) I’ve read this story more times than I can remember, yet it never loses its power to shock and delight. You can’t not love it.
  6. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub (1990). Often seen as standing in Stephen King’s shadow, Straub has written fewer novels but their overall consistency – not surprisingly and for me at least – is finer. Ghost Story and Shadowland are colossi of the genre: novels both intellectual and visceral that you can read again and again and never quite come to the end of. I love his work. This novella is so weird and so disturbing and it showcases Straub’s writing and style to beautiful effect. In fact, go away and read the entire collection from which this story is drawn, Houses Without Doors – it’s one of my favourite story collections ever. For more on Straub, there’s an informative essay by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer here.
  7. Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2004). I first read Kiernan – her story ‘Valentia” – in one of the Jones/Sutton Dark Terrors anthologies and, as with Oates, I knew at once that here was a writer who spoke to me directly. Her confessional style, combined with the beauty of her language, make her dear to my heart in a way that few other writers are. I wanted to include The Dry Salvages here, because it’s perfect and I wish I’d written it, but it’s another novella and I have the feeling I’ve sneaked in too many of those already. ‘Riding the White Bull’ contains many of the same themes as The Dry Salvages – alien contamination, existential dread, the end of the world as we know it – but for the purposes of this listing it has the advantage of being shorter.
  8. The Swords by Robert Aickman (1975). How to explain Robert Aickman? He’s often grouped together with M. R. James and Arthur Machen as a ‘master of the English weird tale’ and indeed Aickman does belong to – or rather issue from – this tradition. There’s more, though. His stories belong to a strange, indeterminate time for horror fiction, which unsurprisingly fell out of fashion after WW2, and did not truly arrive in its various modern incarnations until the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974. What permeates Aickman’s fiction most of all is a sense of disappointment, of washed-upness: the postwar ‘never had it so good’ utopia has failed to arrive. In Britain there’s a mood of confusion and displacement in the aftermath of empire. Where now? Aickman’s protagonists seem to be asking, and none more so than the travelling salesman who is the ‘hero’ of ‘The Swords’. In its depiction of decay and disillusionment, Aickman’s fiction provides something the English weird tale had never attempted up till then: a version of the dirty ‘kitchen sink’ realism we see in the mainstream novels and films of the period. It also directly paved the way for the weird fiction of writers from the so-called ‘mundane’ school such as M. John Harrison, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane.
  9. The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson (2014). It was this urgently compelling story, nominated for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, that introduced us to the art of a writer who promises to be genuinely important to the field. I’ve recently read his follow-up, the dark fantasy (you could almost call it horror) novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and found it equally assured, even more innovative in terms of its language and construction. It’s always a joy to discover a writer this good, and ‘The Devil in America’ deserves all the praise it has garnered. A sort-of werewolf story, it exposes some of the darkness that lies at the heart of American history. It is also a very fine example of the new and more diverse writing that is starting to reinvigorate American fantasy.
  10. Her Deepness by Livia Llewellyn (2010). American horror fiction seems to be in a particularly healthy place at the moment, with a veritable tribe of newer writers such as John Langan, Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Damien Angelica Walters and Sarah Langan producing work of high literary quality and chilling depth of field. Of all these New Lovecraftians, perhaps the greatest is Livia Llewellyn. Her story ‘Horses’ is one of the starkest and most upsetting pieces of science fictional horror I’ve ever read, but I’m plumping for Llewellyn’s novella Her Deepness as my current favourite of her stories, because of the beauty of its language, the completeness of the world it evokes, and because it’s just fantastic. I’ve never read a duff sentence from Llewellyn. She is a major talent.

APPENDIX – BONUS MATERIAL: Stephen Jones added two extra Ray Bradbury stories to his top ten, so I’m damned if I’m not sneaking in two extra stories of my own!

  1. In a Falling Airplane by Otsuichi (2010). The Japanese horror tradition is a lifetime’s study in itself, and as a reader I’ve only just begun to brush the surface of it. There is something antic, something anarchic and deeply unsettling in the stories I’ve read thus far that leaves me definitely wanting more. We already know that japan leads the world in the jagged brilliance of its horror cinema, and there’s something of that same bizarro quality in Otsuichi’s fiction. His stories really ought not to be funny but they often are. They can also feel desolate, perched on the very edge of the abyss. I love the whole collection, Zoo, from which ‘In a Falling Airplane’ is drawn, and would recommend it as a starting point for getting to know what J-horror is all about.
  2. Pan by Bruno Schulz (1934). European horror, so dear to my heart, so utterly vital for the growth of the genre, so often forgotten in discussions of the literature. The best known writer of the European weird is probably Franz Kafka, but there are also amazing lesser known voices such as Friedebert Tuglas, Stefan Grabinski, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Gabriele Wittkop who are equally worth getting to know, not to mention contemporary writers such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Anna Starobinets and Karin Tidbeck. The prince of them all is Bruno Schulz, whose stories are perfect gems of strangeness and ambiguity. It’s almost unbearable to read him, knowing how his life and career were cut short, knowing what we lost when we lost him, but at least we have the stories we have: luminous, humane, resplendent in their strangeness and beauty. ‘Pan’ is just a few pages long but no matter – once you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to seek out everything Schulz ever wrote and make loud, obsessive noises about it to every other horror fan you meet.

What strikes me most harshly as I look back over this list is the writers who aren’t on it. How can I justify including both Caitlin Kiernan and Livia Llewellyn, when that means denying a place to Kelly Link, whose shivery brand of horror is one of the most unsettling and original around? How can I not have included Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan, who are two of my favourite horror writers working today? How could I not have found room for ‘Caterpillars‘, a weird little tale from E. F. Benson that I like better than a lot of M. R. James and that has equal rights to be here as representative of the classic ghost story tradition? There’s a fantastic novella by Tade Thompson that would absolutely have been on here but can’t be, because it hasn’t been published yet. Likewise any of the stories from Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection, which isn’t out until April. And what about the two magnificent anti-horror stories, each in its own way representative of metafictional horror and each adored by me, Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ and Joe Hill’s ‘Best New Horror’? What about Thomas Ligotti’s lifelong, ongoing dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft? What about the densely interwoven, experimental horror fictions of Michael Cisco and J. M. McDermott? What about Nnedi Okorafor’s phenomenal ‘Spider the Artist‘? These exclusions hurt, and if you think that my mentioning them here is just a sneaky way of getting them in under the wire, you’d be right.

A top ten should be what it says it is though (or almost), so I’ll leave it at that. Anything else would be cheating. If you don’t like it – and even if you do – why not get down to business compiling your own?

Nominating for the BSFA Awards and end-of-year musings (Part Two)

So here I am, as promised, with my round-up of the short fiction and non-fiction that resonated with me this year.

The category of short fiction has, as always and as for everyone, presented me with problems. There’s too much of it for anyone to come halfway close to providing a proper assessment (although some brave souls such as Ethan Robinson, Charles Payseur, K. Tempest Bradford and Lois Tilton give it a damn good try), and for whatever reason it seems to be the discussion of short fiction in particular that becomes plagued by a kind of shallow topicality, with similar types and profiles of short fiction bobbing to the surface again and again ad infinitum. I find this depressing and tiresome, especially when the most lauded stories turn out to be pleasing enough, OK, but hardly substantial when compared with, say, an Alice Munro story or a Yiyun Li story or a David Constantine story or a Claire Vaye Watkins story or an Aminatta Forna story. (Because yes, that’s exactly the kind of comparison we should be making.) Pressures of time and general short-fiction-malaise have ensured I have done little more than skim the surface of the veritable ocean of stories that appeared in 2015. I have, however, come across some that I would be more than happy to see on any of the awards shortlists in 2016. So in no particular order:

  1. THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS by Kai Ashante Wilson (tor.com). I don’t even know if this novella will qualify as short fiction for most awards – at around 42,000 words (I think) it breaks the word count for more than one set of guidelines – but I saw someone saying the other day that it qualifies for the Hugo and if that’s right it should win hands down. This novella is so rich, both in texture and content, that it really needs several readings to take it all in. The demi-god (or is he?) Demane falls in love with Captain, a hardened mercenary charged with guiding a merchant caravan safely through a hazardous tract of wilderness known as the Wildeeps. There is a beast at large there, it is rumoured – but what is the true nature of that beast, and what does its presence signify for the world of Captain and Demane? This is a story of magic and science, science and magic and in Sorcerer‘s concern with the bridge between these two disciplines I was reminded a little of Zachary Jernigan’s Jeroun stories. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a fantasy of the highest order, vital and intelligent, a tapestry of living language that tugs at your mind long after reading. I think Wilson is shaping up to be a writer of genuine importance. Bravo.
  2. THE PAUPER PRINCE AND THE EUCALYPTUS JINN by Usman T. Malik (tor.com). Science and magic again, but not in the same way. This story – about a second generation Pakistani-American going in search of his heritage and finding a lot more weirdness than he bargained for is mystifying and beautiful and heart-wrenching. It is also complex and nuanced and stunningly written. It fulfils all the promise that was present in Malik’s Nebula-nominated The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family and all in all it just makes me glad to read something this moving, this well imagined, this intelligent. The stuff about carpets is breathtaking! Again, bravo.
  3. FABULOUS BEASTS by Priya Sharma (tor.com). Ancestry again, but of a weirder kind. Priya Sharma is a seriously good writer. As a commentary on the family, post-urban Britain, and sisters doing it for themselves, ‘Fabulous Beasts’ is strong and lucid and beautifully wrought. Her stories for Black Static (The Absent Shade) and Interzone (Blonde) this year are equally worthy of mention.
  4. HER FIRST HARVEST by Malcolm Devlin (Black Static). Adults living on a sterile mining colony have to be ‘seeded’ to grow fungal matter on their bodies as the main source of food in this bizarre and disturbing marriage of apocalyptic science fiction and Regency romance. This is original and genuinely weird and I loved it, most of all for its lucid, understated language and for actually getting under my skin… Devlin’s story in the most recent issue of Interzone, ‘Five Conversations with My Daughter (Who Travels in Time)’ is every bit as good and Devlin is most definitely a writer worth watching.
  5. TEA TIME by Rachel Swirsky (Lightspeed). A delicious meditation on time, metafiction, and Alice in Wonderland. This is exactly the kind of story I want to see more of. Such poise, such poetry. A lovely thing indeed.
  6. PAUL AND HIS SON by J. M. McDermott (Asimov’s). Brilliant story set in a near-future NYC. Paul is a lawyer. His client is Noah, a millionaire businessman who is trying to get his life-extension treatments illegally extended. Paul allies himself with Noah’s doctor in order to obtain drugs to ‘help his son to focus’ on school. Paul Jr keeps running away and he’s obsessed with machines. This is effortless worldbuilding, a near-future science fiction scenario that feels like today, squared. The relationship between a caring but clueless father and a teenage son is perfectly realised. This story is so superior to most of the other SFF short fiction out there it’s ridiculous.
  7. A MURMURATION by Alastair Reynolds (Interzone). A taut and effective story about obsession and madness. The idea of starling murmurations as predictive algorithms, as modular organisms, is fascinating and original. A dark story with a fantastic sense of place – the bleak fenlands of East Anglia, the narrator’s sense of alienation whilst living there, are wonderfully captured. This is a great piece of writing and I would love to see Reynolds writing more in this vein.
  8. DOCUMENTARY by Vajra Chandrasekera (Lightspeed). This was the first story of the year that really grabbed me. A woman who changes into a helicopter at the full moon refuses to discharge her weaponry – the one act which might cure her – in order not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. ‘Cameras’ filming the documentary are the presence of the dead who have already fallen victim to the war. A highly original variation on the werewolf trope, Mievillian without being remotely copycat. Taut yet lyrical writing. Chandrasekera is one of the most promising newer voices around.
  9. THE OCCIDENTAL BRIDE by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld). My favourite of Sriduangkaew’s stories this year (though they’re all good), ‘The Occidental Bride’ is a biting commentary on orientalism and terrorism, set in a world torn between a shattered Europe and a surveillance-state Hong Kong. This is a terse, uneasy story, rich and disturbing, with Sriduangkaew’s characteristically dense language and vividly evoked imagery impressive as ever. Of Sriduangkaew’s other 2015 stories, I particularly enjoyed ‘Provenance’ in the all-women Lovecraft anthology She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles. This is one of those darkly vibrant Mythos-in-space stories I always love, and a great one. (I’d enjoy seeing the doctor make a repeat appearance in another story sometime!) The impassioned conviction behind Sriduangkaew’s writing, coupled with her flair for language, maintain her position as one of the most interesting and competent of the new generation of short fiction writers. She’s always worth reading and I hope we see more of her next year.
  10. THE FAR SHORE by Yoko Tawada (Words Without Borders). A story inspired by the accident to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. This is the future, and a young American pilot accidentally crashes his plane into a nuclear reactor off the coast of Japan. A wave of chaos, fear, death and unforeseen events spreads out from this initial accident, affecting individuals and whole states alike. The story is told in a totally deadpan, very factual manner. Effective and angry and yes, we need more SF like this.
  11. MINOTAUR: AN ANALYSIS OF THE SPECIES by Sean Robinson (Unlikely Story). Well, I just love fake taxonomy stories. Could read them all day. Borgesian, delightful, perfect. Exactly what it says on the tin.
  12. ANDROID WHORES CAN’T CRY by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld). I like everything I’ve read of Theodoridou, who is a strikingly gifted writer. I especially admire her forensic approach to devastating subject matter, as here. A story about the lies history tells, and those she exploits in the telling. This one sticks in the mind.
  13. Excerpt from UNLANGUAGE by Michael Cisco (Lackington’s).“At the end of a relentlessly long drive—nearly to the end of the line—the building, rambling and drab—pale lights in only a few of its many windows—silence of ceaselessly whirring air vents—tall, narrow white corridors of institutional plainness and squareness—pipes below the ceiling—paint peeling on the walls becoming pink and inflamed—wan fluorescent lights in trays—thin, sour odor of decomposing flesh—a metal door like the rest, with its thick integument of blue paint and an arrow slit. The school is not elegant; it’s like a gas station.” As the title suggests, this is actually a section from a hitherto unpublished novel, but it works perfectly well as a standalone story in its own right, and I like it too much not to include it here. Brilliant, weird and decadent as all Cisco’s fiction, this is a superb little sub-Mythos story about the untapped power of language to summon horrors. Genuinely ambitious, as all the best weird fiction should be, it reminded me in places of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I love this story, and I wish I’d written it. As a writer, Cisco is criminally under-appreciated. I only hope he’ll let us read Unlanguage in its entirety one day soon.
  14. THE DAYS OF TALKING MOUNTAINS by Paul Jessup (Farrago’s Wainscot). A webzine entirely new to me, I came across Farrago’s Wainscot completely by chance. A lucky discovery and I’ll certainly be looking out for it in the future. This short, sad, frightening and surreal story about a brother Gerald and a sister Alice and the giant farm they keep in memory of the Master captivated me utterly. Replete with elliptical poetry, it reads like a piece of European weird fiction. I’ll be reading more of Jessup, that’s for sure.
  15. ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF CAPITOLA, 1978 by David Herter (tor.com). This is billed as ‘a modern re-imagining’ of a story by Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death’, which was itself inspired by Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. I’ve read the Wells but not the Wolfe, so I can’t comment on how exactly the two stories interconnect. What I can do is recommend Herter’s piece as a stunning piece of writing, from another criminally under-appreciated writer. I intend to seek out the Wolfe, so I can read the two in tandem.

Sticking with short fiction just for the moment, I’d like to give a mention to two 2015 anthology projects that particularly caught my attention. Firstly the above-mentioned SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS, which presents a range of excellent Lovecraftian fiction, all by women writers. A lot of talent and imagination has been expended on this book, including splendid cover art by Sarah K. Diesel and interior illustrations by a variety of women artists. As well as the Sriduangkaew noted above, there are standout stories from Gemma Files, Angela Slatter, Pandora Hope and Sharon Mock.

The second anthology I’d like to mention is AICKMAN’S HEIRS, edited by Simon Strantzas and published by Undertow. [DISCLAIMER: I do actually have a story in this one myself, which it is not my place to comment on here.] I’m strangely devoted to Aickman’s fiction, and so this project was always going to be close to my heart. What I could not have predicted, though, was the marvellous cohesiveness of the anthology Strantzas eventually assembled. All the stories are of a superior quality and I would recommend each and every one of them, for Aickman stalwarts and new initiates alike, but standouts for me personally include Helen Marshall’s ‘The Vault of Heaven’, Michael Cisco’s ‘Infestations’, Lisa Tuttle’s ‘The Book that Finds You’ and Malcolm Devlin’s ‘Two Brothers’.

The non-fiction category of awards – sometimes referred to as Best Related Work – presents a different kind of problem in that we’re expected to consider essay collections and other full-length works alongside individual blog posts, essays, reviews, discussion projects and articles. The reasons for this are doubtless lost in the mists of time – something to do with the vast proliferation of shorter-length online material in the age of the internet, no doubt – but clearly the rules need to be re-evaluated. Until they are, I guess the category will continue to shuffle about on the sidelines, neglected and obscure, a continuing frustration for those of us who think it’s actually rather important.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll continue to lump everything together in a shapeless mass, the same as everyone else. So again, in no particular order:

1. RAVE AND LET DIE by Adam Roberts (NewCon Press). Roberts was on the jury for the Kitschies in 2015, and alongside the challenge of judging the books (well over a hundred of them) he set himself the task of reviewing them too, thus providing a fascinating overview of the science fiction and fantasy of 2014. This book is as entertaining as it is informative. For those works that merit close attention and serious scrutiny, Roberts brings his full weight of intellect and erudition to bear.  When a book is shallow, trite, poorly executed or just plain bad, Roberts seems never to run out of original and highly amusing ways of saying so. Rave and Let Die is a must for every library of SF criticism.

2. DUNE, FIFTY YEARS ON; HOW A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL CHANGED THE WORLD by Hari Kunzru (The Guardian). “Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius.” Any essay by Kunzru is a joy to read, and this piece, drawing on Dune’s politics and spirituality and the way they look to us now, post 9/11, is simply outstanding.

3. FROM ANNIHILATION TO ACCEPTANCE: A WRITER’S SURREAL JOURNEY by Jeff VanderMeer (The Atlantic). A fascinating and deeply personal insight into how the Southern Reach trilogy came to be written – and how it felt to write it.

4. ATEMPORALITY by Vajra Chandrasekera. As well as being one of the most exciting new short fiction writers currently on the scene, Chandrasekera is also one of the most thoughtful, original and articulate SF bloggers. The only problem with his criticism is that he doesn’t write more of it – although of course pieces demonstrating this degree of depth and clarity take real time to write, and I’d rather read one essay by him than ten hastily assembled and less considered thinkpieces by less committed writers. ‘Atemporality’ considers the impossibility of short fiction criticism in a climate where one is somehow expected to keep up with everything. WAR IS OTHER PEOPLE, Chandrasekera’s essay on Military SF, is equally worthy of mention and such a great read.

5. RACE, SPECULATIVE FICTION AND AFRO-SF by Chinelo Onwualu (New Left Project). Superb essay covering the Puppies, internet outrage, the reality of diversity and the true place of magic and spiritualism in Afro-SF. Essential, inspiring reading. Well worth considering alongside it are two other wonderful pieces, one being an interview with the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah in The Guardian, the other being Sofia Samatar’s powerful and essential essay for the New Inquiry, SKIN FEELING. Neither of these pieces is directly about speculative fiction, but both have a central relevance to the debates around diversity currently taking place in genre circles and should be read.

6. CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELLING by Kate Schapira. Driven by her own anxieties about climate change, the poet Kate Schapira first began her Climate Anxiety Counselling project in the summer of 2014 when she set up a booth in a public park and invited passers by to share their anxieties about global warming (or anything else) which she then (with their permission) transcribed into a series of flash fictions, vignettes, memoirs and prose poems. The results, many of which can be read at Schapira’s Climate Anxiety blog, are often mesmerising. Schapira’s unique approach in setting herself up as a conduit for the voices of others has resulted in a Gesamtkunstwerk that is both unique in character and vitally important.

7. SEX, DEATH AND THE MAN-OMELET IN KELLY LINK’S ‘THE SPECIALIST’S HAT’ by Helen Marshall (Weird Fiction Review). Weird Fiction Review continues to be one of the very best webzines around, and this essay by Helen Marshall, the most recent entry in WFR’s ongoing ‘101 Weird Writers’ series, is an imaginative, entertaining and thought-provoking examination of the philosophical uncanny in Link’s landmark story. Anything Marshall writes is worthy of notice, and it’s marvellous to see her beginning to build a roster of gorgeously inventive critical essays to place alongside her already remarkable body of fiction.

8. READING ELYSIUM BY JENNIFER MARIE BRISSETT by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife). A fascinating and in-depth analysis of one of the key speculative works – and winner of the PKD Award – in 2014. I particularly enjoyed MKS’s examination of the tendency towards ‘accepted’ readings of texts within critical circles, and how this can set up a false or derailed discourse. One of MKS’s best reviews to date, I’d say (and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition).

9. ARMADA IS FUCKING TERRIBLE by Andrew Liptak. Angrily entertaining yet deadly serious in intent, Liptak’s honest, heartfelt and well argued critique of Ernest Cline’s 2015 novel Armada seeks to examine the elitist tendency within geek culture and its propensity to exclude rather than include outsiders.

10. WHY PEOPLE STOPPED READING THE STUFF YOU POST ON THE INTERNET by Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture). McCalmont’s honesty, thoughtfulness, sometimes-contrarianism and general refusal to have his views, tastes and opinions moulded by fashionable discourse are valuable and increasingly rare commodities in SFF, and although I always enjoy and appreciate his film criticism I do wish he’d go back to reviewing books, at least occasionally, because we need his voice. This piece, on the decline (?) of real blogging, is provocative and timely in equal measure.

11. FORD MADOX FORD: AS SCARY AS H.P. LOVECRAFT? by Ned Beauman (The Guardian). I loved this essay, which draws some unexpected parallels between the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Ford Madox Ford’s seminal classic The Good Soldier. ‘Ford and Lovecraft are not often discussed in the same breath,’ says Beauman. ‘But in fact they are very similar. The difference is that Lovecraft appears to be writing about cosmic horror but is really writing about sex, whereas Ford appears to be writing about sex but is really writing about cosmic horror.’ He certainly makes a convincing case, and makes entertaining reading in the process. Like Beauman, I never expected to enjoy The Good Soldier. Like Beauman, I found it electrifying, horrifying and utterly compelling. The experience of reading it – anticipating each new revelation in much the same way one might anticipate a new episode of The Killing or London Spy, only with ten times the eventual satisfaction – is still fresh and delicious in my mind, and The Good Soldier would be a desert island book for me. Beauman has ensured that the next time I read it, I’ll be thinking Cthulhu.

12. MAGIC IS AFOOT by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta). Robinson has continued his explorations of SFF short fictions in exemplary and heroic fashion this year, providing us with a series of essays that are less reviews and more contemplative meditations not just on the qualities of specific stories, but on the nature of short fiction writing and – as always with Robinson – the point and purpose of fiction in general. Unlike so many, Robinson’s pieces not only reward but necessitate repeated reading. I could have picked any one of a dozen entries from Marooned Off Vesta to list here, but the one above – on SFF’s vexed relationship with the problem of magic – has stayed with me particularly as a kind of bookmark, a reminder of this subject which is becoming increasingly central to and problematic within the genre. More a raising of the question than a thoroughgoing examination of it, I can only hope that Robinson chooses to continue his enquiries with a full-length essay in 2016.

13. And finally in the Best Related Work category, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the reviews by my colleagues at Strange Horizons that helped to light up my reading year and best exemplify why the magazine is so well worth your time. Benjamin Gabriel’s review of Mark Danielewski’s ONE RAINY DAY IN MAY is a brilliant appraisal of MZD’s project as a writer and one of the only reviews that managed to discuss the (ambitious, perplexing and yes, admirable) idea of The Familiar without undue snark. Similarly, Ryan Elliott’s review of Aliya Whiteley’s THE BEAUTY is most likely unsurpassed in terms of excellence within the body of criticism surrounding this fine novella and just such a thought-provoking read. I enjoyed Erin Horakova’s review of PADDINGTON too much not to include it here (and on the subject of Erin Horakova, do let me point you in the direction of her brilliantly acerbic and oh-so-necessary demolition of A. N. Wilson’s LONDON – you won’t regret reading this, I promise}. K. Kamo’s reviews are unfailingly excellent, and I was so happy to see this one of Sandra Newman’s THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel that made the year’s SFF awards shortlists preposterous by its non-inclusion. Niall Harrison’s review of Jennifer Marie Brissett’s ELYSIUM does everything to sharpen one’s sadness that he does not review more, and Abigail Nussbaum’s review of Zen Cho’s excellent collection SPIRITS ABROAD forms just one example of why Nussbaum’s criticism continues to be some of the best around.  Gautam Bhatia has written some wonderful stuff for SH this year, but I’m singling out this piece, on Anthony Trevelyan’s THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD in particular, probably because this is a book I want to read anyway and Bhatia’s review made me all the more curious about it. Paul Kincaid’s review of Iain Pears’s ARCADIA had rather the opposite effect, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that Kincaid’s criticism is as supple, erudite and inspiring to read as always. The same could be said of Aishwarya Subramanian’s criticism – I just love the way she writes. Check out her review of Bryce Olukotun’s NIGERIANS IN SPACE as a fine example. But if I had to pick out a personal ‘review of the year’ from Strange Horizons, I think it would have to be Paul St John Mackintosh’s review of the new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Ligotti’s SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER AND GRIMSCRIBE. To describe this essay simply as a review is to sell it short. Mackintosh not only provides us with an overview of Ligotti and his position within the horror canon, he also examines the contradictory relationship between Ligotti’s nihilistic worldview and the curiously uplifting experience of reading his work, as well as the reasons we read and enjoy horror fiction in general. It’s a superb piece, and I will certainly be seeking out more comment and criticism by Mackintosh in the coming year.

So that’s non-fiction. I’d kind of intended to do a round-up of 2015 films here as well, but this post is way too long already. I hope to find time for a ‘Films addendum’ before the year is out…

This is why we love Strange Horizons

core of the sun.sinisalo“People like to think there is a very sharp line between animal and human being, and I disagree. I think there are lots of little steps between the two, and between each other, and we really shouldn’t think that we are somehow separate from nature. We should recognise that we are animals, that we are hierarchical pack animals and that dominates our behaviour every day, in the ways that we are competitive and so on, but we don’t want to think about it. Our originality and uniqueness is an illusion. I want to have a prominent role for nature and the environment and other creatures, so that we understand that we can’t survive on this planet by ourselves.”

This quote is taken from Niall Harrison’s wonderful interview with the Finnish science fiction writer Johanna Sinisalo, just one of the items of special bonus content that SH has been putting up as part of its annual fund drive rewards scheme.

Sinisalo is, to my mind, one of the most original, committed and intelligent SFF writers currently working – I reviewed her 2014 novel The Blood of Angels for SH here – the kind of writer I feel privileged and blessed to have access to (thank you, translators!) Sinisalo demonstrates all by herself how important it is for those of us in UK/US/ANZ SFF to become aware of and immersed in writers from non-Anglophone backgrounds, how they enrich the genre and give it substance and question its assumptions. It is writers like Sinisalo who provide the rocket fuel that propels us all forward.

Right from the beginning, it has always been a large part of Strange Horizons’s remit, to promote new approaches and diverse talent, to keep science fiction on the radical edge of literature, as is its rightful place. Strange Horizons is a vital and irreplaceable part of the speculative literary landscape, and I would encourage anyone reading this to make a donation to the fund drive. SH is run by volunteers, and its contributors are paid entirely through donations – by you, in other words. Please help keep up the good work.

I’m beyond excited that Johanna Sinisalo has a new novel out soon, also that she’ll be a Guest of Honour at the 2017 Worldcon. If, like me, you can’t wait that long to read more of her, you can find a transcription of her 2015 GoH speech at this year’s Archipelacon here.

The Weight of History

I’ve been thinking for much of this week about a recent essay in Strange Horizons, ‘Weight of History’ by Renay, in which she grapples with the question of what it is that makes a science fiction fan and, more precisely, what is it that a fan should have to know about science fiction. Is there such a thing as ‘the science fiction canon’ and if there is, who gets to say what’s in it? How much of it, if any, do you need to be familiar with before you can legitimately call yourself a fan of SF?SpecFic.2014

I’ve been enjoying Renay’s posts ever since she became a regular columnist at Strange Horizons and together with Shaun Duke she’s just finished putting together a particularly imaginative table of contents for Speculative Fiction 2014, an overview of online SFF criticism. I love the way Renay writes, the passion and open-mindedness of her approach. She is articulate, thoughtful and inclusive, and this essay in particular moved me because although I have a keen interest in science fiction history I often find myself dismayed by the attitudes on display in some of the more, shall we say entrenched segments of fandom, attitudes which seem to be more about a preening display of knowledge (in the manner of a peacock displaying its tail feathers) than the enthusiastic sharing and communication of love for science fiction literature. “How you’re introduced to something matters a lot,” writes Renay, “and if your introduction is a list of decades’ worth of writing and history that you’re subtly shamed for not knowing, that’s going to leave a mark.” Of course it is. A large part of the reason I’m writing this now is because of the frustration and anger I feel, that anyone should be made to feel they don’t know enough of the (frequently excruciating) backlist to be able to make a valid or useful contribution to the conversation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Renay’s essay is the feeling she describes as the ‘cultural pressure to read stories by men’:

It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there’s a history you don’t know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing.

So what exactly is going on here? Are the issues of historicity and sexism distinct, or are they inextricably a part of the same problem? I think it’s worthwhile to note here that SF is by no means alone in having this kind of baggage. In the exalted realm of mainstream literary fiction, ‘the canon’ is if anything even more restrictive, the power bases and cabals even more entrenched and aggressively protective of territory. From this we might infer that the canon as it currently operates within the field of science fiction is an almost entirely artificial construct, its main purpose to act as a kind of barrier to more progressive or divergent opinion: you don’t like our canon, we don’t want you in our discussion, end of.

heinlein moon is a harsh mistressAt the same time, nothing exists in a vacuum and history happened. We need to study history, to an extent, to come to a proper understanding of the present. Is it not particularly important that we make ourselves aware of the least savoury aspects of that history in order for it not to be perpetuated?

All interesting questions, and questions that got me thinking about my own experience as a science fiction reader. How did I first come to the genre, and what did I find there? What do I think of the canon, then and now?

I was an obsessive reader from a young age but I honestly cannot say what first brought me to science fiction. My mum reads a lot, and quite widely, but to this day she has no interest in science fiction in any medium (she likes my stuff, by and large, but is still less than comfortable with any of its more overt horror or fantasy elements). My dad prefers spy stories and thrillers. So aside from a couple of Penguin edition John Wyndham novels (which needless to say I devoured avidly as soon as I was old enough to read them) there was no science fiction or fantasy on the shelves in our house.

Perhaps these things are hardwired into our DNA somehow, because I imprinted on Doctor Who from the first episode I saw (at the age of six) and by the time I was old enough to go to the library by myself I was heading straight for the science fiction section, a habit that continued pretty much until I went to university.

The SF section in our local library consisted almost entirely of the now-gollancz best sffamous Gollancz ‘yellowjackets’ – very useful for anyone new to the genre because the books were so instantly recognisable. I used to browse the section happily for hours, eagerly looking for titles I’d not seen yet and knowing in advance that I’d be taking away stories crammed with all the stuff I was most into: weirdness, aliens, space travel, time travel, defiant rebels and renegade scientists, governments gone bad, deadly plagues, ideas and images and landscapes that were new to me and yet already so much ‘my thing’.

I read a lot of Golden Age science fiction, back in the day. I know I read quite a bit of Heinlein, shedloads of Asimov, Frederick Pohl was a particular favourite. I read Dune, I adored the ironical tone of Bob Shaw and Ian Watson – I read everything by Ian Watson I could get my hands on, although at the time I didn’t know he was British, I just presumed he and Shaw were American, like all the others. I loved anything dystopian or post-apoc – there was no bespoke YA back then, so after I’d read Brave New World and 1984 a couple of times I dug around and found bizarre and now totally forgotten books like Arthur Herzog’s Heat and IQ83 (‘Beans, beans, good for your heart…’) and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. I had an inexplicable fondness for a novel by Edmund Cooper called The Tenth Planet, which I read at least five times. There was nothing systematic about my reading. I had no idea really that there was a semi-cohesive genre called science fiction that people were fans of or had conversations about, much less argued and started decades-long feuds over. What did I know? I just loved reading it.

You may have noticed that none of the above titles are by women. Did I avoid SF by women? Did I not like SF by women? Nope. There just wasn’t any on the shelves for me to read. At some point during my early teens I came across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and discovered a sense of wonder and identification that felt quite different from anything I’d found in any of the other, male-dominated science fiction I’d been reading. But I did not identify Le Guin with the Gollancz yellowjackets, and I had no idea she’d written other novels. The experience of reading Earthsea felt very private, a one-off. I did not explore further because I did not know how. (It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much harder it was before the internet, especially for young people, to zone in on the information they needed. Mostly you’d rely on teachers, or what was on the library shelves – if it wasn’t there it didn’t exist.)

I did not notice the lack of science fiction novels by women. Questions like this were never discussed, least of all in school. It didn’t bother me. I was too busy reading. I was certainly aware that many of the female characters in the science fiction I was reading did not appeal to me but I didn’t let that bother me overmuch either – I found sympathetic favourites among the male protagonists instead.

This is exactly how cycles of patriarchal reinforcement work, of course. But I didn’t know that then.

penguin sf omnibusI suppose the first time I started to become aware of science fiction as ‘different’ from other literature, a literature that not everyone automatically liked or understood came when my ‘O’ Level English class was assigned The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus as one of our set texts (we had an amazing teacher, Jean Stupple, who was studying for her MA at the time and was passionate about literature in all its aspects – I owe my whole approach to twentieth century poetry to her), I was rubbing my hands in glee – I couldn’t wait to get stuck into that great big book of science fiction stories – and felt completely bemused when, as it turned out, pretty much half the class didn’t like what they read. Some people felt the stories weren’t ‘serious’ or that they were ‘weird’. Others clearly felt confused about how they should begin to write about them. Quite a few of my classmates opted out of the book and chose another text instead.

I retain a huge fondness for the Penguin Omnibus because it was such a big deal to me at the time. There are stories in it I still remember as being rather good (‘Lot’ by Ward Moore, ‘The End of Summer’ by Algis Budrys, ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ by Frederik Pohl, ‘The Country of the Kind’ by Damon Knight) and other curiosities that I’ll always remember because I read them here first (‘Grandpa’ by James H. Schmitz, ‘The Greater Thing’ by Tom Godwin, ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak). But here’s the thing: looking again at that table of contents this week, I find it utterly heartbreaking to see and to realise, thirty years after I first encountered the book, that out of the thirty-six stories presented, only one (‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine MacLean) is by a woman.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was assembled from the three Penguin science fiction anthologies edited by Brian Aldiss in the early 1960s and containing stories written over a roughly twenty-year period between 1941 and 1962. It was compiled under the guiding principle of presenting an overview of where science fiction was at, what had been achieved, who was writing the most interesting and original and intelligent work. A book to demonstrate to the uninitiated reader, maybe, why they should consider reading science fiction. Clearly for Aldiss at that time, the most intelligent, original and interesting science fiction was being written almost exclusively by men. Clearly it did not matter to him in the least that his ‘comprehensive’ omnibus excluded women writers. I’d be tempted to say it almost looks like a point of principle, the imbalance is so stark, only I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it is more likely that the imbalance happened because Aldiss simply did not notice it, or consider it to be important.

This too is heartbreaking to me. Seeing women’s writing, women’s contribution to science fiction erased in this way – that it is erased unintentionally almost makes it worse – makes me feel furious, and tired, and sad all at once. What we have in the Penguin Omnibus, I see now, is ‘the canon’ writ large, the closed circle being perpetuated, ever onward. Given the writers from that time period Aldiss could have included – C.L. Moore, L. Taylor Hansen, Carol Emshwiller, Kit Reed, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett, Kate Wilhelm, Andre Norton, Naomi Mitchison to name but a handful – had he been bothered or so inclined to seek them out, makes this all the more galling. The inclusion of writers like these would have shifted the tone and emphasis of the anthology substantially towards a more fully formed, multi-faceted vision of the genre, perhaps attracting more readers, more women readers even towards SF. Maybe some of these women, seeing themselves reflected in the table of contents, might even – shock, horror! – have thought about writing some science fiction themselves…

The tired, establishment rejoinder to such observations is that we shouldn’t let issues of gender affect our choice of the best stories. The obvious flaw in that argument is how do we know we’re getting anything like the best stories, if the criteria for selection are pre-set and those who are doing the selecting either refuse or can’t be arsed to look beyond them? I think one of the biggest problems for people unfamiliar with or uneasy about the rhetoric surrounding questions of industry or cultural bias occurs at a level of basic misunderstanding. ‘Where are the active impediments to women writing, submitting, publishing?’ they ask. ‘Where are the editors and commentators and critics deviously working to keep women out of science fiction?’ In the majority of cases, of course, such active impediments and devious editors do not exist, or at least have not existed for some time. No one is arguing that they do. That does not mean that there is not a problem. The problem is systemic, a system of passive reinforcement of the status quo that is so long and deeply established that for large numbers of people – both men and women – living inside it, it is invisible. You only have to look at this sample list of ‘The Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books’ to see how effectively the same-old same-old continues to be given the nod at a grassroots level. Unlike the Penguin Omnibus from the 1960s, this selection was compiled just five years ago. Of the hundred books listed, only twelve women writers. Surely even those who insist there isn’t a problem can see that’s pathetic? That is far from the only list with a similar imbalance, either – just Google and see. Some of them are even worse.

So, getting back to Renay’s original conundrum: is there a continuing cultural pressure to read stories by men, and if there is, what should we do about it?

I think we’ve established that the answer to the first part of the question is yes there is, if only because the vast majority of so-called canonical science fiction that is presented for us to read – in anthologies, in SF Masterworks series, in best-of lists – is by men.  As readers we naturally gravitate towards what is readily available, the names made familiar by repetition, the books people keep insisting that we need to read. In an area where we might feel a bit at sea and especially in need of guidance – Golden Age science fiction, for example – that effect will be doubled. Which is exactly how the system perpetuates itself.

As for what to do, there are various approaches. One of the comments on Renay’s post, from Tansy Rayner Roberts, provides both a superb analysis of the problem and a brilliant solution:

The thing is, the terrible/wonderful truth, is that you can’t catch up. No one can. What you also can’t do is compete on “contextualised reading” because you can’t replicate the experiences that many older SF fans have in common. You can never go back and read Heinlein in the 1970’s or Asimov as a twelve year old (boy) if they didn’t do it already. Just like my elder daughter read Harry Potter differently to me, and my younger daughter will read it differently agains.

But this LITERAL IMPOSSIBILITY to have the same experience with someone else’s canon is quite freeing because you get to make your own history. Your own essential canon. And if you really want “proper context” well, that’s what history books are for.

I can highly recommend finding your own classics. For every “but have you read Heinlein” or “Asimov had a great female character,” you can holler back with “But have you read all of Joanna Russ? I would tackle Heinlein but I’m starting with Delaney. I TRUMP YOU OCTAVIA BUTLER.”

I absolutely love this idea of finding your own classics, of making your own canon, if you will. I have become so dissatisfied with the popular, male-biased consensus view of science fiction history that I’m more than ever inclined to spend extra time researching those lesser known but equally important works that tell a different story of what science fiction is about and where it came from. Or that alter our perspective on the story as it stands. Or that simply give us some other names to think about, for God’s sake. (I’m not massive on Golden Age SF in any case but I’m particularly interested in what started happening with women and science fiction in the 1970s – see Jeanne Gomoll.)

As we each find our own classics, so we all make our own science fiction. How great is that? If someone – a new reader or writer – were to ask me whether they needed to read the canon to be taken seriously I’d say absolutely not (and go tell the person who told you otherwise to STFU). The truth is that all the tropes of Golden Age SF will be familiar to you already – from games, from movies, from the cultural air that you breathe without even thinking about it. In a very real sense, you won’t be missing anything, and so if you can’t stomach the thought of wading through Heinlein or Herbert then don’t. You’d be far better off expending your time in reading science fiction that does inspire your interest, that speaks to you now and is relevant to the genre as it is evolving. Anyone who tells you you need to have read Arthur C. Clarke before you can form an opinion on Jennifer Marie Brissett is just plain wrong. (Those people won’t be reading Brissett anyway, they’ll be too busy getting stuck into David Brin or Greg Bear, ha ha.) In a very real sense, life is too short.elysium.jmb

On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in investigating how we got here from there, then there should be nothing to stop you sampling some of the Golden Age canon, even if simply out of morbid curiosity. Personally I find aspects of the canon fascinating. Very little of it is great literature – I frequently find myself dipping into something I might have read thirty years ago, only to give up in despair after a chapter or two, wondering what on Earth I used to see in this stuff first time round. I think I’d be right in saying that the only works that have made it into my personal canon from those early Gollancz yellowjacket days are the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic and Keith Roberts’s Pavane, both of which I’ve read at least three times since and so can confirm they hold up magnificently. But I love the SF conversation, the SF argument. I like knowing what’s in the canon so I can mess with it a bit. If anyone asked me where would be a good place to start with old school science fiction, I’d say they could do worse than to take a look at The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus. It’s a fascinating overview, both because and in spite of the fact that it’s so flawed. Also, short stories are going to take much less of your time than novels. You can learn a lot by reading anthologies, from any period. Much more fun than slogging your way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (In fact in this case I’d say just…don’t.)

triffids.wyndhamAs for my own science fiction, what does that look like? I think I can safely say that my time with Heinlein and Asimov is over now, although I will probably have a go at rereading Clarke at some point. In spite of their faults, I am always going to love and cherish the works of John Wyndham because they’re a part of who I am as a reader and as a writer (Wyndham made a real effort with his female characters too, which I like to think isn’t a coincidence). I tend to think of the eighties and nineties as a bit of a dead time for me in SF, although I continue to be very interested in especially the British science fiction of the 1970s (not Moorcock, who is overrated in my opinion, but people like Compton, Coney, Cowper, Holdstock, Bailey, Saxton). Ballard, especially the early novels and his genius-level oeuvre of short fiction, is a cornerstone of my belief. I want to read a lot more of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Thomas Disch. I’ve not yet read Octavia Butler and I need to remedy that. I would like to read all of Delany because I think he’s one of the most brilliant and original writers science fiction has ever produced.  I continue to feel frustrated by a lot of contemporary genre SF, excited by the ideas that thrum through them yet disappointed by the rushed or stodgy or merely adequate quality of the writing itself. I hang around on the margins of genre, ceaselessly searching for those precious works which excite and innovate at a science fictional level and make you want to pump the air at their literary quality. That’s my science fiction and I love it.

What I also love more than I can say is the way the genre is beginning to diversify. The proliferation of fin-de-siecle essays about the exhaustion of science fiction were, to my mind, a reflection of the state of a genre that had been drawing from the same well for way too long – that is, the canon, the same old, the pulps, the Gernsbackian tradition. What science fiction desperately needed was a transfusion of new blood, not just younger writers but different writers, writers drawing on influences, traditions and experiences that were not necessarily centred upon Heinlein and Silverberg and the American SF writing of the 1950s. Happily, that transfusion is now beginning to take place.

If I’m drawing my influence from anywhere now I would like it to be from thehossain.efb sincerity and conviction of some of these new writers, writers whose ability to imagine and communicate often leaves what we are doing in western science fiction looking stale and flabby and tired. I want to read books that feel as if they mattered to the writer, urgently. I am finding this quality, more and more often, in novels by writers who come from way outside the canon but who will, and thank God for that, inject new life into it. I think Nnedi Okorafor is writing some of the most interesting stuff around now and her linguistic and stylistic palette is just stunning. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory and everything she writes is not only resplendent in its linguistic prowess but above all it feels meant. There’s a novel just recently come out by Saad Hossain called Escape from Baghdad! and it’s so bitingly funny, so original and so necessary I’d urge anyone and everyone to read it, science fiction fan or no. Especially in the field of short fiction, we are seeing a huge upsurge of work appearing from writers whose backgrounds and influences lie outside of the western mainstream, writers like Usman Malik who was recently nominated for a Nebula, writers like Kai Ashante Wilson and Alyssa Wong who have just been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, writers like Vandana Singh whose work would seem to be one of the perfect fusions of science and fiction out there at the moment, writers like Zen Cho, whose story collection Spirits Abroad is so original and so accomplished I was disappointed not to see it appearing on some of the mainstream literary prize shortlists. Of the short fiction I read last year, ‘Autodidact’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew lingers in my memory for its intensity of feeling and outstanding technical accomplishment. JY Yang’s ‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ has also stayed with me as the work of a powerful new voice with no fear of innovation. One of my favourite stories of this year so far, ‘Documentary’ by Vajra Chandrasekera, comes from a writer whose blog essays on science fiction and some of the issues surrounding it are also of a most superior quality – more, Vajra, please!

zen cho spiritsI hope we’ll be seeing novels from all these writers in due course – indeed Zen Cho already has one forthcoming. These writers and others like them are not just challenging the canon as it stands, they are beginning to reform it. They are making science fiction an exciting, innovative place to be again. As discussions of the Golden Age canon make little sense now without reference to the New Wave that challenged the old order and polarised opinion within it, so our discussions of ‘whither SF’ and the wearing out of genre materials make no sense at all if we don’t talk about what is happening in science fiction right now to reverse those predictions. A static canon is a dead canon. Fossils that are allowed to stay on the shelf simply because they’ve always been there are just that: fossils. We don’t have to throw them all out, necessarily, but surely we should re-examine them in the light of our thoughts, preferences and ambitions as they stand today, rather than leaving our evaluations under the sole control of memory, which is so often fickle, or tradition, which is so often stagnatory?

Science fiction is still the most radical literature alive. Radical means sticking two fingers up at the canon at least once a day. Don’t let anyone tell you what your experience of science fiction should be. This is something you should be deciding for yourself.

The tyranny of plot

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.

For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.

 

I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.

The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.

Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.

But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.

I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.

I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?

Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.

Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.

In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).

I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.

For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.

I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.

 

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – non-fiction focus

The non-fiction category of SF awards is often sorely neglected, not just in terms of the number and variety of nominations received, but in terms of overall discussion. We relegate this category at our peril, however, because an informed, rigorous and enthusiastic critical hinterland is what might be deemed a desirable necessity, crucial to the advancement and betterment of any field of interest, with science fiction being no exception.

As with short fiction, we are now in a position to access more information, speculation and argument about SF than ever before. Whilst some remain critical of the digital ‘democracy of opinion’, arguing that the sheer bulk of unedited, unsolicited and ill-informed commentary can have only a diluting and detrimental effect on the discourse, I am not one of them. I count universal access to critical platforms as unequivocally a good thing. The space available is infinite, ergo there is room for everyone and no ‘wasted space’. We should not forget that online magazines, forums, blogs and discussion boards have provided and continue to provide both platforms and entry points for those who might never have felt the confidence to submit articles to print magazines – magazines they might not have known about or could not have afforded to subscribe to in the first place. The diversification of commentary through digital media is one of the most welcome developments in our field in recent years. And if you happen to come across a piece of rhetoric that seems pointlessly aggressive, lacking in direction, badly written, offensive or just plain awful (as you surely will) it takes less than a second to exercise your discretion and close the window.

One criticism that I have some sympathy for is the claim that the current fashion for short, immediately assimilable ‘thinkpieces’ has led to a corresponding decline in sustained, quality criticism in online venues. Certainly, the perceived need for speed of response – to have one’s say on a current topic immediately and ahead of the rest – has tended to mitigate against essays that take longer than an hour to write or ten minutes to read. But surely this matter is in our own hands? Whilst it can be frustrating to see any number of half-arsed blog posts rattled off at the speed of light and before the author has given themselves time to form a properly constructed argument, there is no law that states that we ‘have’ to react, react, react, immediately and with venom. There is plenty of quality work out there, and we owe it to ourselves as readers, writers and critics to discover it, promote it, argue over it and contribute to it. One of the salient advantages of online criticism is the writer’s ability to link to other relevant works, thus bringing divergent voices and points of view simultaneously to the same arena. This is a whole new way of constructing criticism, and should not be downplayed.

Deciding what to nominate in the non-fiction category can be especially difficult because of the variety of what’s on offer and the differing modes in which it’s presented. How can we possibly decide between a full-length monograph, and a 1,000-word essay, for example? I’m not even going to try and answer that question at this point – that’s an argument for another day (or perhaps for two separate and distinct award categories..?) Rather I’d like to draw your attention to a number of non-fiction items, in various formats, that happened to catch my attention in 2014. In no particular order, then:

 

Call and Response by Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications) This collection of essays on everyone from H. G. Wells to China Mieville showcases Paul Kincaid’s ongoing commitment to and engagement with science fiction literature to marvellous effect. The table of contents brings together essays culled from publications as various as Foundation, The TLS, Strange Horizons, the LARB and Vector, and includes all-new section introductions and a generous handful of previously unpublished pieces. Essential on every level.

Greg Egan by Karen Burnham (Modern Masters of Science Fiction, University of Illinois Press) I snapped this up when it was cheap on Kindle, because I enjoy Karen Burnham’s criticism and because I think Greg Egan is a writer I need to get to grips with, at entry level at the very least. I think this is a wonderful monograph. Burnham clearly knows Egan back to front at both a literary and a scientific level. She’s in sympathy with his ideals as a writer, but never lets her appreciation of what he’s up to blind her to the criticisms levelled against him. Her enthusiasm and knowledge bounce off the page, and if I wanted a travelling companion on the road to understanding a writer so unabashedly scientific in his approach to science fiction, I could not have asked for a better one. This book is entertaining, informative, and endlessly thought-provoking.  It has also left me with the resolution to read at least one Greg Egan novel this year.

Stay by John Clute (Beccon Publications) In common with the Paul Kincaid book, John Clute’s 2014 collection of essays boasts a new introduction, several previously unpublished pieces (including a never-before-seen short story) as well as updates and revisions to all previously published essays. John Clute is one of our greatest commentators bar none. His essays form some of the most astute and articulate literary criticism around; they are also works of art, and I live in a simmering state of outrage that he remains more or less unknown outside the genre. Included in Stay is ‘The Darkening Garden’, a ‘short lexicon of horror’ and one of the most persuasive and ingenious analyses of horror fiction I have ever read (even if you don’t agree with it, it’s still brilliant, and would be worth the cover price all by itself). Nor should we forget Clute’s irregular column for Strange Horizons, Scores. Particular highlights for me in 2014 would include his thoughts on Lucius Shepard’s Beautiful Blood and Jo Walton’s My Real Children and his side-by-side analysis of Howard Jacobson’s J and Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest.

Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: a look at two new short fiction magazines – Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture) I truly don’t have enough good words to say about this piece. It’s a multi-part essay in which the two internally-linked sub-sections on the magazines in question (Terraform and Uncanny) form essential components. I don’t always agree with Jonathan on a point-by-point basis, but I admire his criticism enormously, and believe that if we had more commentators like him – rigorous, knowledgeable, engaged, and most importantly uncompromised by genre factionalism or the concerns thereof – the critical hinterland of science fiction would be in a much ruder state of health. In Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens, Jonathan discusses two seemingly opposed tendencies within genre short fiction (and one might argue within genre fiction as a whole), the reflection of said tendencies within the magazine culture and the implications for the vitality of new short fiction and emerging writers. Much of his concern is tied up in what he sees as the shifting of the centre ground of SF from a primarily ideas-based ‘branch of non-fiction’ towards a mulch of ‘over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions’. He is just as keen to interrogate a literary landscape in which new science fiction stories are not so much a medium of communication with an audience as the currency of social advancement within the genre.

I remain undecided as to how much of Jonathan’s argument I agree with – all mulchy middle ground, me – but I find much that interests me in his viewpoint, and the gutsiness of his writing always leaves me feeling liberated and inspired generally. I feel wholeheartedly grateful that he has written this essay, as well as what might be deemed its companion pieces, Short Fiction and the Feels, and A Perspective on Perspectives. I am always genuinely shocked when I notice people feeling threatened by essays like these. If we are to evolve and compete as a branch of literature, objective, up-front criticism of this kind is what we need, and a lot more of it.

Transgressing Genre Boundaries and All That by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta) Science fiction is a unique literature and a radical literature. Shouldn’t we be fighting to keep it that way? Like Jonathan McCalmont’s essay above, Ethan Robinson’s piece is an articulate and robust interrogation of the state of science fiction literature today, the direction it appears to be taking and whether the push towards the convergence of the science fictional and the mainstream is in any sense desirable. It’s a wonderful piece of polemic, one I’ve commented about before and recommend unreservedly. Whether you agree with it or not, Ethan’s argument is valuable, timely and absolutely necessary. More like this, please! (And if there’s any way we can group his ‘Sturgeonblogging’ series of essays under a single project heading, nominate that, too!)

Review: Interstellar by Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Abigail Nussbaum is shaping up to be one of our most knowledgeable and articulate critics. This essay on Nolan’s film is a fine example of what she does so brilliantly, commenting on the larger movements within science fiction by means of close focus on a single work or group of works. She’s such a good writer. Her piece Mad as Hell, Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin is also pretty much essential reading.

Random Snapshots of Book Hunting in Downtown Nairobi by Mehul Gohil. Exactly what it says on the tin. This is a wonderful piece, packed with insights, compelling writing and the love of science fiction. This was billed as Part 1, and though the essay is complete in itself I am still hoping Part 2 will appear at some point in the future.

The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl by Chinelo Onwualu (Omenana) A short piece, but an essential read.

Black Nerds , Black Cool, and Afrofuturism by Troy L. Wiggins is exactly the kind of longer, in-depth essay that is vital to the genre, to promoting diversity, understanding and exploration within the genre, and that I for one would love to see more of. Please read this.

China Dreams: contemporary Chinese Science Fiction by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) Ken Liu is tireless in his promotion of Chinese science fiction, and it’s wonderful to see Clarkesworld taking the initiative here not just in bringing us more stories, but more information about them, too. This essay is a medium-length overview of the field as it currently stands. As Liu himself says upfront, giving anything like a comprehensive assessment of a literature so intrinsically diverse and multitudinous is pretty much impossible, but here at least is a place to start. A must-read.

I Love Writing Books – so I Need to Get Better at Writing Them by Kameron Hurley. I admire Kameron Hurley as a writer. I also like Kameron Hurley’s blog, and feel a generous measure of identification with the stuff she has to say about the writing process, emphasising the absolute necessity of consistent hard work and perseverance. She’s always worth reading, on any subject, and I admire her honestly. Her piece Some (Honest) Publishing Numbers, and (Almost) Throwing in the Towel is refreshingly candid about the whole getting-published-and-staying-published circus.

Me and Science Fiction: SF and Politics by Eleanor Arnason (Strange Horizons) “What I like about SF as a traditional category is that it has room for both slipstream and pop culture. It does not merely use pop culture, as a fine art writer might do, it includes it. The gamers and cosplayers and comic fans are not the subjects of our art. They are us.” Eleanor Arnason’s series of columns for Strange Horizons have been excellent and I hope there’ll be more of them. She has a way of inviting people into her writing, facing down challenging subjects in a dynamic and inclusive manner. Do also take a look at Me and Science Fiction: Books and the Death of the Middle Class, also in Strange Horizons.

Strange Horizons Bookclub: Tigerman by Niall Harrison, Aishwarya Subramanian and Maureen Kincaid Speller (Strange Horizons) A fascinating discussion of a book I thought I wasn’t going to get on with (because superheroes) but then did. (It’s stayed with me actually, far more than I thought it would.) The participants in this roundtable found plenty to talk about, and this article provides the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to get deeper into Tigerman, or simply to eavesdrop on an informed and entertaining analysis of some aspects of contemporary science fiction, beginning with the question of whether Tigerman can be considered properly science fictional in the first place.  These book clubs are a wonderful innovation at SH – I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture by Nisi Shawl (Strange Horizons) This truly is an essential read for any reviewer, to be bookmarked and passed on at every opportunity.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife) The only thing wrong with MKS’s reviews is that we don’t see more of them! See also her review of Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen at Strange Horizons, and let’s hope Maureen decides she’s up for blogging the Clarke again this year, because her 2013 posts were a highlight of the awards season.

Feminist World Building: Toward Future Memory by L. Timmel Duchamp (The Cascadia Subduction Zone) CZS is a fascinating periodical that really should be better known than it is. This essay blends the personal with the historical in an intricate and involving way and is exactly the kind of considered, informed non-fiction writing the genre needs more of. It’s powerfully argued and beautifully constructed. A keeper.

Biting Style: The Bone Clocks and Anti-Fantasy by Max Gladstone. This is a thoughtful and perceptive essay, arguing that Mitchell’s ham-fisted use of fantasy in The Bone Clocks was kind of intentional.  I was personally very disappointed by the novel, and (though I hate to admit it, even now) ended up coming down more on the side of James Wood’s less than generous analysis in the New Yorker. But I found Gladstone’s piece so fascinating and well argued that it almost – almost – persuaded me to reconsider. For an impassioned Joycean ‘yes!’ to The Bone Clocks (and an antidote to the Wood piece), see James Smythe’s affirmatory review at Strange Horizons.

The Expanding Borders of Area X: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach in the Context of a Weird Renaissance by Scott Nicolay (Weird Fiction Review). A great little essay on the history of weird fiction, the reasons for its current flowering, and how Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal trilogy fits into that. It’s also worth noting that Nicolay’s own debut collection Ana Kai Tangata has received some great press and is a likely candidate for some awards of its own this year. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Writing is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence by Jason Starr (Los Angeles Review of Books) A lovely piece that takes an in-depth look at a set of letters written by Dick and McKimmey ‘when they were both young, emerging genre writers’. Starr’s essay also makes some more general observations about the value of correspondence as an insight into a writer’s life and work. As someone who has derived significant pleasure from reading published volumes of writers’ letters over the years, this subject interests me a great deal. Only time will tell if the form will survive the internet (I think it will – writers love writing to each other, and we’re going to carry on doing it; whether that’s physically or electronically is of lesser importance) but this sensitive and personal reminiscence does a good job of reminding us of why such letters are to be treasured.

Rambling, Offensive and Unbeatable: Beam Me Up, Old School Sci-Fi by Sandra Newman (The Guardian) “The average reader is no longer a mind-blown teen who will accept any unpleasantness in exchange for cool ideas. The average reader is the average reader. So editors are acquiring books according to criteria that were formerly incidental to the genre – quality, readability, plots that make sense. The twisted misogyny is gone, and with it the bracing misanthropy. The cool ideas are still there, but a certain anarchic power has been lost.” There was a dismaying and predictably knee-jerk reaction to Newman’s piece in some quarters, with people choosing to interpret it as a call either to excuse or, even more bizarrely, put back the racism and misogyny that dogs many of the science fiction texts that are considered by the orthodoxy as classic. This is so obviously not what Sandra Newman was saying. Like Jonathan McCalmont and Ethan Robinson above, what she’s talking about is the slide towards a new orthodoxy in SF, a bland kind of crossover that doesn’t really say much of anything, much less voice opinions that might be considered provocative. The piece may be roughly worded in places, but what it has to say about the maverick tradition in science fiction is well worth reading and considering.

 

Don’t forget that nominations for the BSFA Awards close on January 31st. Get yours in now!