Monthly Archives: November 2012

New things

Well, I’ve now read the first two books in The Dark Tower series, and I am beginning to understand why Stephen King looks upon this work – which he describes as ‘one long story’ rather than seven individual novels – as his crowning achievement. It’s a classic quest narrative, yes, but it’s more than that. (It would have to be – nothing feels quite so derivative these days as a classic quest narrative. Normally they bore the pants off me.) It has irony, it has knowingness, it has postmodernism. It has a love of its own game so heartfelt it is a joy to behold. It also has some inspired writing. Take this section, from ‘The Oracle and the Mountains’, about two-thirds of the way through The Gunslinger:

The sun climbed to its zenith, seemed to hang there more briefly than it ever had during the desert crossing, and then passed on, returning them their shadows. Shelves of rock protruded from the rising land like the arms of giant easy chairs buried in the earth. The scrub grass turned yellow and sere. Finally they were faced with a deep, chimney-like crevasse in their path and they scaled a short, peeling rise of rock to get around and above it. The ancient granite had faulted on lines that were step-like, and as they had both intuited, the beginning of their climb, at least, was easy. They paused on the four-foot-wide scarp at the top and looked back over the land to the desert, which curled around the upland like a huge yellow paw. Further off it gleamed at them in a white shield that dazzled the eye, receding into dim waves of rising heat. The gunslinger felt faintly amazed at the realisation that this desert had nearly murdered him. From where they stood, in a new coolness, the desert certainly appeared momentous, but not deadly.

(The Gunslinger p148)

This is what I mean about Stephen King and sense of place! That gorgeous word ‘sere’, and then the lovely image of the desert sands ‘curled around the upland like a huge yellow paw’, giving the desert itself the character of a serval or a mountain lion, stretched watchful and tawny and deadly in the baking sun.

The Gunslinger is full of writing like this. There’s a terseness, an economy (like being sparing with water when crossing the desert) in its construction. Yet the lyricism, when it occurs, is exquisite.

This is a perfect short novel. Anyone who still labours under the impression that King isn’t interested in writing should try it. (And I’d be willing to bet those many detractors of King who haven’t actually read him wouldn’t be able to guess the author of the paragraph above, not in a million years.)

The Drawing of the Three, the novel that follows, is very different. Longer and less meditative, less austere, this is more Canterbury Tales than Rheingold, but it’s a lovely thing, with some super set pieces (the Balazar shoot-out, the whole of the final sequence with the Roland-possessed John Mort and the cops and the gun shop guy) that made me laugh out loud through sheer enjoyment of King’s skill in telling, the bravura of what can only be called his writerly choreography.

To be honest, I feel I could quite easily launch into The Waste Lands right now, and from there to the end of the sequence and not feel trammelled for a moment. There was a time when I believed that King was so different from me as a writer that I couldn’t possibly learn from him, but I’ve changed my mind on that, rather. We’re no more similar now than we were then, but King does all kinds of things so well that it’s worth paying attention, not just as a reader but very much as a writer, too. I think what I gain most from reading King is the drive and the courage to try new things, things I might not have dared to try otherwise. His evident enjoyment of the craft is contagious. His memoir/manual On Writing has inspired and helped me more than any other book on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.  I would recommend it, without hesitation, to anyone.

My quest for the Dark Tower will have to be deferred for the moment, however, because quite suddenly there are other books I need to read. I’ve just begun researching for a new piece of work, something I’ve been skirting the idea of for a while but that now appears to be acquiring a definite shape.

This is the exciting time, when the idea is still so new it is almost infinitely malleable. I haven’t yet had time to write myself into a corner, or become daunted by the complexity of what I’m attempting. I’m doing something rather different this time, and writing (very vague, very flexible) chapter summaries in advance, which gives me a shivery feeling, like looking at a chessboard in the moments before a game begins, the pieces in position, ready for battle.

It’s a matter of form.

Thinking about form a lot – it’s a subject I’m obsessed with, anyway. I liked very much some of the thoughts expressed in the latest of Jonathan McCalmont’s excellent essays, Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction:

Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.

If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.

I loved this, even if I don’t think I can entirely agree with the idea that info-dumping is unique to SF. The term is SFnal, the technique not exclusively so, and many and various are the writers who have employed it. Versions of it, anyway.

That’s not the point though, or at least not for me. The point is that we should think about form, because the games we can play with form are as exciting as the stories we can choose to tell. Form is, in its way, its own kind of story.

Thought for the day

Science fiction has always defined a future as a global trend successfully isolated & described: the futurologist’s future, the cultural analyst’s future. All that interests the sf writer is the wavefront, the shock of the new. Cold, man. Because the future is also the umwelt of those who are left behind & muddle on–accepting this, rejecting that, failing to acknowledge or even detect macroeconomic shifts. In fact that’s really the only actual future, the non-discourse future, the non-speculative, non-theoretical future, the future on the ground. It’s all around, now. One of the many ways science fiction might delimit itself is to write in that direction, rather than always going for the shiny stuff, the Googie of the day. Bruce Sterling meets Anita Brookner & they totally fail to understand one another at the Hotel du Lac.

(M. John Harrison, bruce sterling meets anita brookner)

The Muse at Tales to Terrify

I’m delighted to announce that my story ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’ is currently being featured as this week’s fiction at Tales to Terrify. You can listen to the podcast right here.

The nicest thing about this for me is that it offers the chance for me to experience one of my stories from the outside, as it were, to get a proper sense of how it might come across to readers. In the normal course of events, achieving this level of objectivity is next to impossible. Reading a piece of work aloud myself does help, but it’s not the same thing. I have to say I’ve loved hearing ‘Muse’. Dan Rabarts‘s reading is just perfect – he inhabits the various characters completely, and the whole thing (I am proud to say) does seem to have the feel of a classic ghost story.

I remember ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’ being an absolute beast to write. When Jonathan Oliver first asked me to contribute something to his House of Fear anthology for Solaris, I was well up for it – I love haunted house stories, and felt immediately excited by the idea of writing one. The inspiration for ‘Muse’  came from a trip Chris and I made to Maldon and the Blackwater Estuary. It’s a special place – you might almost say it’s hidden from view – and its understated landscape of brackish marshland and narrow inlets attracted me immediately as a setting for a ghost story.  The character of Johnny was there in my head from the first – for me, a story almost always begins with a single character – so that was the easy part. After that though nothing about this story wanted to be simple. I lose count of the number of false starts I made – I think it was four? – but I do know I almost gave up on it completely at one point.

I don’t know why it was so difficult. I know I wanted to write a ‘classic’ kind of haunted house story, my own personal take on the sort of thing that made me fall in love with weird fiction in the first place, and perhaps it was those cherished early memories of stories by Machen and Blackwood and Aickman (oh, especially Aickman) that gave me stage fright. Either way, hearing Dan’s wonderful reading this evening has made all the struggles I experienced getting the thing down on paper seem worthwhile. Thanks so much for that, Dan, and huge thanks also to Tony Smith of StarShipSofa and Larry Santoro of Tales to Terrify for inviting Johnny and Denny on to the show…

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged to take part in this writers’ blog relay race by Carole Johnstone. Carole’s stories appear regularly in the BFS Award-winning dark fantasy magazine Black Static, she’s featured in many anthologies including Best Horror of the Year #2, and you can read all about her upcoming novella Cold Turkey here. Cold Turkey will be published by TTA Press in 2013 as part of their of their new series of novellas, which also includes my own story inspired by the Arachne myth, Spin.

But first, those ten leading questions:

1) What is the title of your next book?

Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

That’s always a difficult one to answer, at least for me. The chapter that gave the book its title was actually written about six months before I started working on the rest of it. I wasn’t sure what it would be, just that certain characters and their stories compelled me. It was only bit by bit that the connections between these characters emerged, and the book began to settle into the form it now takes.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Again, that’s a tricky one. The book falls into six chapters – three that are longer short stories and three that are novellas. The title chapter, which is one of the novellas, is SF. Several of the other chapters lean more in the direction of horror, or dark fantasy. And then there’s another time-slip, SFnal chapter in the middle of all that. I suppose it’s best simply to say that it’s speculative fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This book has a diverse cast of characters, but the central figure, the character that unites all the others, is Ruby Castle herself. As the story advances, you’ll get to see an episode from her childhood in a travelling circus, and then later scenes from her life as an actress, first on the London stage and then in film. The actor I’d choose to play her – no question – would be Rebecca Hall.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Be careful what you wish for.

6) When will the book be published?

Stardust will be published by PS Publishing in the New Year. I’ve just recently seen the cover art, by Ben Baldwin, which is truly fantastic and, as with all the illustrations Ben has created for my work, shows a tremendous insight and sympathy with the book itself. I hope to be able to announce the publication date for Stardust soon, so watch this space for updates.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

What with all the buggering about that always seems to accompany the start of a new project, I’d say probably about nine months all told.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’ve been thinking about this for ages and I honestly can’t say. I think it’s for the reader, rather than the writer, to make these kind of comparisons. I think that the best way of describing these stories is to say they start off normal and end up getting strange. If you like books that skew the world a little, that reveal the secrets inside outwardly ordinary lives, then I think you’ll like Stardust.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Initially, the idea of a teenage girl in an alternate Russia, watching a rocket launch on TV with her brother. These were characters who just would not go away and who might one day return.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think those people who know my work are getting used to (and hopefully to like) the way I enjoy playing with form, the way I like to approach a story from different angles, then discover through the process of writing where all the various threads join up. I don’t think of Stardust as a story collection, so much as a fractured novel, and I think that anyone who reads the book will understand why. The individual chapters can be enjoyed as standalone stories – but I think they gain considerably by being read in context.

On the simple level of story, this book is full of interesting people, and I’m fond of all of them. There’s a chess prodigy, a knife thrower, an antiquarian bookseller who gets into trouble in Nazi Germany, an art dealer who tells a lie about his wife and ends up halfway up a mountain pursued by monsters. There is poetry and there is romance. There is a giant worm and there are horror movies. Oh, and it has an introduction by Robert Shearman.

What’s not to like?

Taking the baton from me next week will be the very excellent David Rix, horror writer, illustrator and head honcho of Eibonvale Press. and the wonderful Aliette de Bodard, SFF writer and winner of the BSFA Award in 2011 for her story The Shipmaker.

People I tried to ask, but who had to say no because they’d already been tagged (bastards) include Cate Gardner, Kirsty Logan, Ray Cluley, Marie O’Regan, James Cooper and EJ Swift. People who said they couldn’t take part because they were just too chicken shall remain nameless…

Boris Strugatsky R.I.P

photo by Sergei Berezhnoi

“He was an absolute, pure genius. With his departure, everything has become darker and more airless.” (Dmitri Bykov)

This feels like the end of an era. Read Miriam Elder’s reflections for The Guardian here. Russians really, really care about their writers.

The Trouble with Horror

In a recent blog post for The Guardian, Stuart Kelly asked us to ponder the question of horror fiction, and whether it was a genre doomed to literary hell. The post itself is interesting; even more so is the comments stream that follows, a discussion that also expanded sideways into further personal blog posts and on Twitter. If nothing else, it shows how this issue has the power to get people talking. I was struck in particular by a comment made by Jonathan McCalmont:

I really like the idea of horror lit but I’ve never found any I really liked.

Which he then extended by saying of a recently published and much-lauded commercial horror novel:

I thought the first half was cliche-ridden and the second half was just silly.

This certainly rang true for me. From personal experience I’d also add that almost all of the commercial horror novels I’ve tried to read recently have been rendered unsatisfactory, for me at least, by an identical fault:  often graced with a compellingly readable beginning, they inevitably unravel into a farrago of ridiculousness, cliche and generic predictability in the second half. That this just happens to be the same lethal virus that has infected ninety-nine percent of commercial horror cinema can be no coincidence. Paradoxically, the danger for many new horror writers is that they grow up loving horror. They devour horror any which way they can, and in the process they grow used to a particular grammar of horror, a set of tropes that, like all tropes, were probably exciting once, but are now staid and safe. These writers repeat in print what they’ve seen on the screen because that’s what got them into horror in the first place. It’s understandable. It’s also threatening to make horror a laughing stock.

I grew up loving horror, and when I finally decided to start taking my writing seriously it was horror that I wanted to write. I lost count of the number of horror novels I got through in those first few heady years when I was rediscovering the genre and trying to work out where I fitted into it, if at all. Looking back on that period now, I can see that what I experienced was in effect my own mini, speeded up history of horror: in the beginning, everything seemed new, and thrilling, and just about the best damn thing I’d ever read. As I became more knowledgeable I started to discern recurring themes, a certain repetitiveness, a certain lack of freshness in approach that made me begin to worry that maybe horror was all used up. The final stage of this intensive period of discovery was a coming to terms with the fact that horror, more than any other genre, is actually a closed system, and that the only way of ensuring originality in horror is by busting out of it.

It sounds obvious to say it, but whereas science fiction and fantasy are abstract concepts, horror is an emotion, something you feel. Science fiction as a genre – and in this SF is no different from social realism or historical fiction – is an umbrella term for a whole gamut of varying approaches. It is a house of many mansions, many shades of dissenting opinion. Most importantly, it does not have a dominant, nay determinant, tone colour. Compare one hundred SF stories and there is room, in theory if rarely in practice, for one-hundred percent diversity. Compare a hundred horror stories and they will be bound together, to some extent at least, by the genre’s self-defining demand that it feast only upon itself.

If what we’re looking for in horror is originality, this is going to be a problem.

The logical extrapolation of this problem is that horror will be less widely read even than SFF, because large numbers of people will convince themselves from the outset that it’s not for them. “I don’t like being scared.” “All that monster stuff is stupid.” “I can’t stand blood and gore.” At least with SF, you might have a reasonable chance of persuading a non-initiate that it’s not all men from Mars now, that there’s all sorts of fascinating stuff they might be interested in – the ethics of cloning or human fertility or near-future scarcity or plain old crisis of identity, you know, just like in Dostoevsky’s The Double. It’s difficult to try convincing anyone that you can have horror literature without any horror in it. When I try telling non-horror buffs that the audience at FrightFest don’t all wear Texas Chainsaw T-shirts (well, we do, but that’s not the point), that the atmosphere is one of the friendliest and most inclusive I’ve ever experienced, that the level of discussion at the Q&As reveals an articulacy in the language and culture of cinema a hundred miles in advance of anything you’re likely to find in an average audience for, say, The King’s Speech, what happens is that they look at me and shake their heads: you’re just a horror nut, what would you know?

It’s an uphill battle, doomed to be lost because generic horror seems largely content to sit on its arse and not do very much other than talk to itself.

And yet there is no shortage of marvellous horror fiction out there, no shortage at all, especially if you’re prepared to look for it in more out of the way places. When people say horror’s dead, I say they’re reading the wrong stuff.

Peter Straub’s Shadow Land, Ramsey Campbell’s Incarnate, Patricia Geary’s Strange Toys, Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead and Stephen King’s The Shining are all brilliant horror novels, most of them probably familiar to horror readers. But Nicola Barker’s Darkmans is also a horror novel, so is John Banville’s Mefisto, John Burnside’s Glister, Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart, Susan Hill’s The Beacon, Patrick McGrath’s Martha Peake, Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.  What is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones if not a horror novel? Or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace? If you’re secretly thinking that ‘literary horror’ is somehow a soft option, or ‘not really horror’, then go away right now and read Joyce Carol Oates’s mind-scorching Zombie or Gabrielle Wittkop’s extraordinary novella The Necrophiliac. One of the most original and striking voices in contemporary short fiction, Robert Shearman, is also one of our finest horror writers. The book that won this year’s Edge Hill Short Story Prize, Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference, contains four horror masterpieces. Stuart Kelly quite rightly mentioned the American writer Brian Evenson as a contemporary master of horror; recent collections from Paul Meloy, James Cooper, Margo Lanagan, Thomas Ligotti and Kelly Link similarly showcase modern horror in intriguing, diverse and strikingly original ways.

What unites all the above is 1) excellent writing and 2) the fact that these are books that make highly effective use of horror, but not horror exclusively. They are all, first and foremost, stories. Narratives. Experiments in novelistic form. Extended character studies. Subversions. Tales of madness. Explorations of situations or people or ideas or places that absolutely compel both reader and writer to find out more. I’d argue that Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie is one of the darkest and most disturbing horror novels ever written. It got to me so much I almost couldn’t finish it, which has to be just about the highest compliment you could pay a horror novel. It has stuff in it that many generic horror writers would shrink from using. But what makes Oates’s book a masterpiece and raises it far, far above the level of the black-jacketed clones more commonly shelved under ‘horror’ at your local Waterstone’s is the sheer quality of Oates’s writing, her attention to characterisation and to those aspects of the story that do not directly inspire horror in the reader – in fact in the case of Zombie they inspire pity. One of the many things that makes Stephen King a writer rather than just a best-selling horror phenomenon is the fact that backstory, surface detail, sense of place, and the poetical rhythms of vernacular language matter as much to him as monsters, sometimes more.

This may sound controversial, but I believe that if you set out to write horror (as some say you should) with the sole aim of horrifying, terrifying, or penetrating the dark arse end of the human psyche then what you’ll end up with won’t be very strong. The books and stories I’ve referred to above were written, I would argue, for a whole variety of reasons and with a whole variety of inspirations as the starting point. That the reader will, in the course of reading them, be horrified, or terrified, startled out of their comfort zone or on occasion even feel that they are indeed penetrating the dark arse end of the human psyche (I defy you to read 2666 or The Kindly Ones and NOT feel something of that kind) is more or less a certainty; that this is a part, but never the whole, of their literary journey is a certainty also.

When a horror writer begins work on a new story, she should be thinking about the story as a whole and not just the horror. Above all, she should be ambitious. Because a certain depth of purpose is a prerequisite for interesting writing, and because dynamic writing, writing that lasts in the mind and stands the test of time is rarely monochrome. It contains a whole spectrum of tone colours.

Because horror should be deep, not cheap.

Since finishing work on Maree last month, I’ve been working on a couple of horror stories. One of them, which is really more dark fantasy I suppose than horror (although it does have horror in it), was more fun to write than anything I’ve attempted since ‘A Thread of Truth’. There was just something about the narrative voice that made it feel as if I was listening to the story as well as writing it. This doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s exciting. The second story, which I finished earlier today, couldn’t have been more different. Even though it – just – has an affirmative ending, its tone is so bleak, so sad that I found the story preying on my mind in a way that felt unusual and not a little disturbing. But I think that’s a good sign.

I’ll say more about these two stories in due course. For now, I guess what I’m driving at is that horror can be – should be – anything you want it to be. The only rule is to make it indisputably your own.

Weighing anchor

Couldn’t resist a quick post about this.

It’s now exactly three months since Chris delivered the manuscript of his new novel The Adjacent (out next summer). In the weeks since then, an increasing number of sea- and ship-related books have been appearing on desks and bedside tables here, and last night I read the first three pages of the first draft of what will be Chris’s next book, The Mariners.

Anything more different from The Adjacent is difficult to imagine.

It is so good! The most intriguing, inviting and alluring beginning of a story I have read in ages.

To say I’m impatient to read more is putting it mildly…

Election Night

This month, Locus Magazine are hosting an ‘all-centuries’ poll for the best SF/F/H novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s the first such poll since 1998 and therefore the first chance readers will have to reveal their thoughts on which works of the current century might be destined to emerge as future classics.

This is fascinating of course, especially since 1) the poll is open to everyone, not just Locus subscribers, and 2) the organizers have been sensible enough to respond to suggestions that this year’s ballot NOT be seeded with possible options (as has happened previously) and thus, theoretically at least, offering us a level playing field.

Is a level playing field truly possible, though? If you click on the link above, as well as the ballot form itself you’ll find four extensive and informative ‘suggestions lists’, one each for novels and short fiction for both the 20th and 21st centuries. It is clear that the poll’s organisers have been rigorously fair and thorough in compiling these lists (full details of the selection procedure can be found at the head of the 20th Century Novels list). Some questions, however, remain.

In the run-up to this year’s Fantasycon, the BFS ran a poll to determine the nation’s favourite ghost story, and because I’d been invited to take part in the panel discussion prior to the announcement of the winner I did a fair amount of research before the event. I started by rereading a number of my own favourite ghost stories. Then I checked out the ToCs of some landmark anthologies to see which stories featured and what I thought of them.

What I discovered was that although these anthologies featured many fine stories, they were also surprisingly conservative in their selections. The same stories tended to crop up again and again at ten-year intervals. It was as though editors had found themselves stymied, bound to choose certain works simply because they were already considered to be unassailable in their position as ‘classics’ rather than because they felt genuinely inspired to include them. So orthodoxy is born: stale, inflexible, and unthinking. A by-product of orthodoxy is the risk of losing sight of those works that didn’t fit the prevailing fashions of the time, those works that were odder, more uncomfortable, less easily categorized. Less orthodox, in other words. Awards, anthologies and works of criticism present an interesting picture certainly, but (as has been highlighted by recent debate) it can only ever be a partial one.

The result of the ghost story poll came as no surprise to anyone, and for me at least the winner served to epitomise the problems of orthodoxy. M. R. James’s ‘Oh! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ still has its thrilling moments and James’s influence on later writers is undeniable. Yet ‘Oh! Whistle’ is also very much a product of its time and place. It is a story of surface affect but precious little psychological depth. Its convoluted mode of address makes it feel irredeemably dated now – it’s retrospective, not revolutionary, more of a comfort blanket than a tale of terror. I’m not suggesting that we should stop loving M. R. James (or Heinlein, or Clarke) – just that we should consider them honestly before including them in our personal canon, that we should not take the assumed importance of any writer for granted. Historically significant these ‘classics’ may be, but how good are they now, really? Does the writing still speak to us in a language that is actively inspiring, or is it time for a changing of the guard?

Polls like this current Locus poll give each individual voter the chance to be his or her own editor, compiling a personal ‘century’s best’. Which is a great thing – just so long as we remain aware of our own biases as we make our selections. What are our own personal criteria when we sit down to fill out our ballot forms? The most obvious point to underline is that no one has read everything – no matter how much we read or how widely, we all have built-in blindspots, gaps, hobby horses. Given that this is so, is it more worthwhile to try and make an ‘objective’ listing – those works we genuinely consider to be groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting, historically important, regardless of how much we personally actually like them – or would selecting works on such grounds prove so subjective and in its own way dishonest that it’s better simply to go for works we love, regardless of how they sit ideologically within the genre or how clever or well thought of they are. Should nostalgia play a part? What about books that completely changed our outlook when we were sixteen, but (being brutally honest) we’re no longer that keen on?

For my own ballot, I allowed my personal response – my gut feeling, in other words – to determine my choices as much as possible. I studied the suggestions lists carefully, but my final votes included a good number of works that are not on those lists. I voted only for works that I have read in their entirety. I also laid down an additional rule for myself in only voting for one work per author per category – it just seemed more interesting that way. I’ve listed my voting choices in a pdf, which you can view here. I hope to see more people posting their ballots online as the deadline for voting (November 30th) draws closer. The bigger the turnout, the more meaningful the result. The more dissenting the opinion, the better.


We heard last night that Lavie Tidhar has won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel with his superb Osama. This is such brilliant news, not just for Lavie himself (I forget exactly how many publishers turned this book down originally, or wanted Lavie to change the title – bet they’re kicking themselves now… ) but also for SFF. Osama was so clearly the right choice – and what a wonderful way to end this year’s awards season.

At his recent gig at Foyles to launch the Solaris paperback edition of Osama, Lavie talked passionately about speculative fiction and the European tradition, why genre is irrelevant, and some of the difficulties he experienced in getting Osama out to us. The man lives and breathes ideas, which for some might be explanation enough as to why he’s so readily found a home within the SFF community. But the other thing about Lavie – the most important thing – is that he’s a bloody good writer. Read Osama and you won’t just find one of the most daring and original alternate histories of recent years – you’ll also find muscular, evocative prose, a resonant sense of place, a revelling in detail and criss-crossing everything the acknowledgement that our existence here is above all a human story, not just an ongoing historical and technological experiment.

I’ve just been reading ‘Strigoi’, a short story by Lavie recently published in Interzone. It’s set in an Israel of the future, the ‘Central Station’ which is now Earth’s chief space port. But what we have here is not the bright, shiny, impossible and rather tedious future we’re already tired of (the way SF has so often been misrepresented in and by the mainstream). We don’t have a doomsday scenario either. What we have is pragmatism, a kind of positive uncertainty. Above all we have detail:

The Shambleau called Carmel came to Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is the smell of the sea, of salt water and tar, coming from the west. It is the smell of orange groves, of citrus trees in bloom, coming from the distant plantations of the Sharon region. It is the smell of the resin or sap that sometimes drips from a cut in the eternally renewing adapto-plant neighbourhoods surrounding Central Station, sprouting like weeds high above the more permanent structures of the old neighbourhood; it is the smell of ancient asphalt heating in the sun, of shawarma cooking slowly, drenched in spices, on a spit, close to a fire; it is the smell of Humanity Prime, that richest and most concentrated of smells. There is nothing like it in the Outer Worlds.

The old collides with the new here in a form we can recognise and thus feel a part of. Here is a world that is still in the future and yet all around us, a world we have a stake in, even as it arrives. It is the fine detail, the minutiae, that make this world real to us, as much as any overarching concept. Tidhar’s world is a world we feel as well as imagine.

We sense its reality.

This is the kind of SF I want to be reading.

Congratulations to Lavie Tidhar, and to all this year’s World Fantasy Award winners. This has been a good one.

Oh, and you can read another of Lavie’s Central Station stories, ‘The Lord of Discarded Things’, right here at Strange Horizons. I recommend it.

“Nothing cancels out bum aliens.”

I’ve just been enjoying the latest instalment in James Smythe’s marathon Stephen King Reread for The Guardian, a great little essay about Cujo that focuses on the rabid dog as a metaphor for alcohol and drug addiction. The series has been brilliant so far and I look forward to each new ‘episode’. It’s also inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to get around to for years but have thus far never managed to allocate the time to: read the Dark Tower series. I’m almost at the end of The Gunslinger now (early days I know) and just… loving it. The sense of place – the acrid harshness of the hardpan desert – is majestic (King’s consistent attention to sense of place is in my opinion one of the things that makes his fiction great) and the idea of the book – as the first step on this monumental fictional journey – makes me jealous. That’s the simplest way I have of putting it.

I wish that I could write something like this.

As well as duelling with the green eyed monster, I have also been writing. I’ve just finished work on a new story (a long one) and am about to begin on another (not so long). I have also been trying to get my voting choices in order for the Locus All-Centuries Poll of SFF – a strenuous task, of which more in the near future.

Listening to: Cowboy Junkies Open, Bob Dylan’s Tempest. We bought this a week ago and it’s fantastic. I don’t think any lyrics could ever equal the incandescent poetry of some of those earlier albums (for me at least) but this is a good record.