Monthly Archives: December 2012

Year’s Best

Last night we watched Hanna, Joe Wright’s film from 2011. We were keen to see it when it came out but it was one of those we missed – we’ve now caught up with it on DVD. The reviews at the time were non-committal, but whilst Hanna is undoubtedly flawed (Cate Blanchett’s part is so badly scripted you’re desperate for her to be gunned down just to put an end to her wooden dialogue) what we discovered was an odd, highly imaginative little movie with some wonderfully surreal moments, striking imagery and a great soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. I loved seeing it, and it left me feeling aggrieved for Joe Wright that his first two features – the predictably lavish and entirely unchallenging costume dramas beloved of habitual non-cinema-goers, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement – were so rapturously received, while his next three films – The Soloist, Hanna and this year’s Anna Karenina – have met with indifference and a vague bewilderment. The variety and weirdness on display in his more recent work gives us ample indication that Wright wants to do a great deal more as a director than pump out repeat performances of the kind of heritage cinema that launched his career – and yet it would seem that some reviewers at least would feel happier with him if he stayed in the box he was originally allocated. This, as they say, makes me mad.

I love Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It was my great introduction to Russian literature and I’ve read it three times. I’d be content to see it (perhaps along with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago) awarded the title of Best Novel of All Time. Most attempts to film Anna Karenina have concentrated on period detail, on recreating, as accurately as possible given the time restrictions, what actually appears on the page. Such attempts have met with varying success, but given the scope of the novel and the mountain of narrative material to be climbed it’s perhaps inevitable that most of them were doomed. You can enjoy them as entertainment – in much the same way you can enjoy David Lean’s approximation of Doctor Zhivago – but they don’t add a thing to the novel. How could they, when all they’re doing is trying to ape a novelistic language, rather than approaching Tolstoy’s work from a fresh angle, in terms of cinema?

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, filmed in a mock-up of a nineteenth century theatre, all swagged red velvet and gilt trim, is a satirization of lavishness. It plays around with the idea of being a stage play, and yet the filmic devices Wright employs – the apparent transposition of the action inside a toy theatre, the use of a model railway layout to portray Anna and Vronsky’s journey from Petersburg to Moscow – could only be achieved through the medium of cinema. As such they pass beyond gimmickry to illumination, augmenting our understanding of the novel from a twenty-first century perspective. Rather than being heritage cinema, Wright’s Anna is a modern work of art. Can it be that which upset the purists? Whatever the reason for this film’s lukewarm reception, it pisses me off. Cinema, like all art, thrives on risk, and the willingness to take risks, as Wright has done, is infinitely more praiseworthy than the lush repetition of some perfectly executed Hollywood Tolstoy-by-numbers.

Anna Karenina turned out to be one of my favourite films of 2012: a surprise and an inspiration and a delight. Other favourites include Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Cafe de Flore, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. These are all what I’d call hole-in-the-wall movies, the kind that get only a limited theatrical release and rarely crop up in awards nominations. You won’t find them on view at your local multiplex, yet they’re undersold on the arthouse circuit also. They’re those peculiar little films that no one seems to know what to do with and I love them, even when, or especially when, they’re not perfect.

(Disclaimer: I haven’t seen The Master yet, but we’re going next week. I loved Woody Allen’s To Rome, With Love, even though it’s not ‘good’ Woody Allen, apparently, but then I’ve loved everything he’s done apart from Whatever Works – and yes, that includes the London movies. Also I totally adored William Friedkin’s Killer Joe. So shoot me down.)

The year in books was dominated for me by two titles, M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, and Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. You might easily draw comparison between these two – Keith Ridgway tackles the crime novel in a manner reminiscent of the way Mike Harrison tackles the science fiction novel, an approach composed of pretty much equal parts love and resentment – but that wouldn’t be the point. Both these books are astoundingly well written, punch-to-the-gut well written in fact. Both do fascinating things with form, both offer an honest confrontation of contemporary reality. Above and beyond that, both these novels are meant, both give you the sense that the writer staked his integrity on them, not to say his sanity. Both feel like essential reading, in a way that too few contemporary novels are willing to risk. There – we’re back with risk again. A real novel, surely, should entail some.

If Empty Space and Hawthorn & Child tie for gold, my worthy runner up would have to be Sam Thompson’s Communion Town, a first outing so accomplished it raises the bar a notch higher for anyone and everyone behind Thompson in the debut queue. I really loved this book. What’s more, I was excited by it – not just because of the risks it takes with form and with genre but also because of the compelling mystery of its storytelling and the rapturous beauty of its language. Communion Town made the Booker longlist and should have gone further. Still, there’s plenty of time for Sam Thompson, who clearly means business.

The other books on my personal year’s best list weren’t written or even published this year – 2012 just happened to be the year in which I read them. Nicola Barker’s Clear was a total joy – I honestly can’t go far enough in stating my admiration for this writer and what she’s doing. Barker has often talked about how much she feels compelled to take risks, both in her subject matter and the form of her narratives, and it is a testament to her skill as a storyteller that for the reader these risks are rendered invisible by the runaway pleasure one always finds in reading her. (I mean, Barker’s Behindlings or Self’s Umbrella – which would you rather read..?) In 2013 I plan to read The Yips – already purchased – and to finally catch up with Wide Open, the novel that won Barker the Impac Award and that I’ve been meaning to get to for ages.

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching took my breath away. A small novel, but perfectly formed. and without a doubt the best ghost story I’ve read in years. Why it was largely overlooked by the various awards judges – both mainstream and genre – is a complete mystery. Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich was another book I came away from wishing I’d written it. And continuing in the military vein, 2012 was the year I finally got around to reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I’ve heard so many people rate this book as their ‘desert island’ novel, an indispensable classic that made them look at narrative in a whole new way. I was a tad sceptical, to be honest – but wow this was a great read! The Good Soldier is buttoned up to the point of claustrophobia, understated to the point of being repressed – but still it seethes with tension and enmity and hidden meanings; unshowy yet flawlessly elegant in its use of language, it’s a genuine page-turner and I found myself joining the ranks of those who couldn’t put it down.

The book that has proved the most practical inspiration to me this year was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. When I read it I burned with envy, simple as that. Here’s a novel that made me stop what I was doing and think again, a tautly composed, one-of-a-kind book that is a masterclass in storytelling as well as a showcase for some of King’s best writing. What King demonstrates most of all in The Gunslinger is that style and substance can and should be equal partners. Grasping this – indeed I think I shold say finding the courage to grasp this – is reshaping me as a writer, I hope for the better.

Of course there there were some low points: Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (trying to ‘do’ SF but failing from a great height with a lingering waaaaa sound), Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals (a too-shallow exploration of a fine idea), Ali Shaw’s The Man Who Rained (a weak recapitulation of his brilliant first novel The Girl with Glass Feet) to name but three. But when it comes to reading and writing, nothing is wasted. I find that even the books that don’t work for me teach me something, and asking myself precisely why I’m angry with a book can often be as instructive as setting down my reasons for loving a text.

As for next year’s reading resolutions, what I wish for myself more than anything is some structure, the self discipline to stop dotting around all over the place and engage in some serious and constructive ‘project’ reading. (OK, so this is just another excuse for me to make lists of things, fair cop.) As well as completing Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I also have vague plans to read the whole of Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘gothic’ sequence – with the fifth and last novel due out in March, I can’t think of a better time to embark on that particular voyage, especially given that I could read JCO all year long and not get tired of her. I’d like to catch up with some contemporary crime novels (everyone was all over Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, for example) and I can always make time for more literature in translation – Bernardo Carvalho’s Nine Nights is already on my reading list. Then of course there’ll be the excitement of a whole new Clarke Award shortlist – I can barely wait!

But the best thing about a new year’s reading is the newness of it, not having a clue what your best discoveries will be.  And there’s always that hope, reiterated every year, that you’ll stumble upon a book that will change your whole outlook, that kind of talismanic text that fills you with a new urgency, that reminds you of what you’re supposed to be doing and equips you – if you pay attention – to do it better. That’s what I’m looking forward to in 2013.

Happy New Year!

Nothing more Christmassy than this…

I haven’t read Susan Cooper for years and years – about thirty of them, to be exact – but when I came upon this interview just now it made me want to curl up in an armchair with a mug of cocoa (spiked with Glenfiddich, of course) under a good strong reading lamp and hurtle through all five Dark is Rising books one after the other.

This is an inspiring, beautiful article that I would recommend anyone to read, especially if they’re up to their eyes in writing a novel. Cooper has clearly drawn heavily on her own life in her fiction. She’s used her own passions and experiences – but in the best way any writer can, that is invisibly and unselfishly, to create worlds and stories that will captivate and inspire others. She never insists that ‘this is about me’; rather she’s saying, ‘this is about you.’ This is something that as writers we should all aspire to.

I love especially the passage where Cooper describes the moment when she first knew that The Dark is Rising was not a story set on its own, but part of a series:

My head went into overdrive, and I took out a piece of paper and wrote down five titles, starting with Over Sea, and five times of the year – the Celtic festival times like Beltane and Samhain, and the solstices. And the people who were going to be in these five books. And I wrote the last page of the last book so I knew where I was going. Then I spent the next six years writing these four books.

‘My head went into overdrive’ – that’s when you know you’re on to something. And the quote taped above her desk, the words of her friend Ursula Le Guin? Never a truer word:

If you find that it is hard going and it just doesn’t flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work. Nobody ever said it was easy. What they said is: life is short, art is long.

This is just to say Happy Christmas to everyone who’s been reading this blog, to all those wonderful readers, writers, friends and critics who have been so generous with their talk, ideas, support and encouragement. Thank you all, so much – it’s a huge deal and I truly appreciate it. Time now to unstopper the malt and pick out a DVD. I keep threatening Chris with the Abrams Star Trek, which I have a perverse love for, but I don’t think I’m going to get away with that one…

Cheers, everyone!

Christmas comes early

Really very happy indeed to announce that my story ‘Sunshine’, originally published in Black Static #29, has been selected by Rich Horton for his Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2013 Edition. The full ToC can be viewed here – with stories by Ursula Le Guin, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Bear and Genevieve Valentine, among many other wonderful writers, it truly is an honour to be included.

And a piece of news like this does go some of the way towards dulling the pains of First Draft Hell. The thing I’m working on now is difficult. At this early stage, progress is slow as I’m still very much feeling my way into the story, discarding stuff almost before I write it. But it’s exciting! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so excited about a project in my life.

I may take a break for Doctor Who and mince pies, but that’s about it…

Breaking the code

I’ve never much liked the term ‘non-genre SF’ because I feel it runs the danger of deepening an already false divide between science fiction and the literature of the mainstream and thus making the ghetto mentality around SF still more entrenched. More recently though I’ve come to see some sense in it, if only for the purposes of describing a difference not so much in style as of approach. Wanting to write science fiction should never be treated as a literary crime, any more than it should commit you as a writer to a particular style. But it has always been and remains true that whilst there are writers who feel wholly committed to the idea of SF as a life’s project, there are also those who are what are sometimes called ‘tourists’, writers more usually associated with the mainstream, who approach SF out of curiosity once or twice but who never revisit. Perhaps they enjoyed SF when they were younger but feel they’ve ‘grown out of it’. Perhaps they’re a bit ashamed of admitting their weird proclivity in front of their LRB friends. Whatever their reasons, there’s a sizeable chance that many of those writers who come visiting from over the mainstream fence haven’t read much science fiction since their late teens or early twenties. They almost certainly don’t have much idea of what’s going on in the field at the moment. It’s because of this, more than any other reason, that their contributions to the literature of science fiction are often seen by ‘real’ SF readers and writers as somewhat reactionary or out of date and why, somewhat ironically, they tend to be rather looked down on.

I freely acknowledge that writers who are more usually associated with the literary mainstream do not always, indeed do not often, produce the best SF, and although I often find myself fighting a corner for non-genre SF, when it comes to individual novels I often find it disappointing. But science fiction can always use a kick up the arse, the kind of literary jolting that infuses it with new ideas about literary form and new ways of seeing itself. Sometimes jolts like this come from the literary side of the fence rather than the SFnal side, and occasionally a non-genre work will come along that goes all the way out there science fictionally and raises the bar for the rest of us. I believe that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was one such novel. I was up until 3.30am reading that book, and there aren’t many novels I’ve read since my twenties that I can say that about. Waking just a couple of hours later and still thinking about it, I remember pulling back my curtains and looking out over southeast London, thankful and relieved that my city was, at least for the moment, still there. The Road made me re-evaluate my own reality, and that’s one of the ways I knew it was not just a great novel, but great SF too.

But more often the kind of non-genre SF you find gathering the most attention in the broadsheets is not nearly so strong. Usually these books are dystopias, because that’s more or less the only SF template that the literary mainstream seems comfortable with – better the devil you know, after all, and while Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood may not have read The Dervish House or Dhalgren or The Separation you can bet your life they will have read Brave New World, The Day of the Triffids and probably The Road as well. Non-genre SF is often very heavy on premise, and those writers who venture into it tend to introduce any science fictional concepts they do try with a kind of ‘woo look, no hands!’ underlining, wheeling out their Big Idea in such a way as to suggest that no one’s ever thought of it before, when in fact if they’d actually read any SF post-Wyndham they’d realise loads of people have done it before, probably decades ago and with a greater degree of originality and flair.

This doesn’t mean their novels are bad – there was a fragility, a quality of sincerity to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that made me like it a lot, and although Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb was not the most innovative SF in the world, it had a writerly sensibility, an approach to the material and most importantly to characterisation that made the book live in the mind and gave it weight – but when they are bad they are horrid. Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles was one of the most uncomfortable reads of this year for me and not in a good way. In terms of its SF it was dreadful – only the most cursory logic had been applied to the central conceit, while the book’s shallowly complacent, California-centric worldview had me wincing with embarrassment on almost every page. When reviewing the book for The Observer, Edward Docx put the problems of this novel down to the very fact that it was SF:

But for this reader at least, it is mildly depressing that so nimble, delicate and emotionally sophisticated a novel should find itself burdened by such sci-fi oafishness.

Docx argues that The Age of Miracles would have been a better book if it had been allowed to become the ‘beautifully observed coming-of-age story’ that it wanted to be. I couldn’t have disagreed more. As a coming-of-age novel, far from being nimble, delicate and emotionally sophisticated, the book seemed to me to be strikingly naive and limited, stuffed with cliché and with not one thing apart from its admittedly cack-handed SF premise to distinguish it from a thousand other American first novels of its type. It gives me no pleasure to say it, because I wanted to like the book, but The Age of Miracles felt very much like writing-by-numbers.

And yet this novel, acquired for $1m, was marketed by its mainstream imprint as the pinnacle of science fictional achievement. For science fiction writers the squandering of such superlatives is particularly galling, as it is impossible to escape the suspicion that many of the critics who lavished praise on the book hadn’t picked up a science fiction novel since they had to read Nineteen Eighty-Four for ‘O’ Level.

So can non-genre SF ever wholly embrace science fiction? My instinct would be to say yes, of course it can, and for much of its length the book I have just finished reading, Tobias Hill’s 2003 novel The Cryptographer, would seem to be the perfect justification of such an argument. Hill is an award-winning poet, and it’s perhaps not surprising that The Cryptographer, whilst it is set in the near future, was immediately claimed by the mainstream as the kind of novel that cannot be SF because it’s proper literature. In her review for The Guardian, A. S. Byatt was specific in describing The Cryptographer as not science fiction:

This is neither a thriller, nor a futuristic utopia or dystopia. Tobias Hill has his own elegant, clear and complex, meditative way of inventing worlds…. He has a masterly control of hinted, rather than elaborated, changes.

It’s beautifully written and well imagined, in other words, both factors that in the minds of some critics at least immediately disqualify it from being SF. Also there are no aliens. This is all predictable enough. What is perhaps equally predictable but more of a pity is that Hill’s novel has attracted relatively little notice from within the SF community. I think this is a shame, because to my mind The Cryptographer is precisely that kind of novel that is worth examining from a science fictional as well as from a literary standpoint.

The Cryptographer is told from the point of view of Anna Moore, an executive – or should we say agent? – of the British Inland Revenue. When we meet her at the start of the novel, she has just been assigned to the case of John Law, the world’s first quadrillionaire, inventor of ‘Soft Gold’, a universal computer currency that has been adopted on a worldwide scale. The Revenue has no reason to suspect John Law of any impropriety, and Anna is told that the investigation is a random check. Anna soon uncovers what appears to be a minor anomaly in his firm’s accounts; Law immediately pays what he owes and the file is closed. But Anna cannot seem to let go. She is mesmerised by her client, not so much by his wealth but by the person of John Law himself, the particular vulnerabilities of a man who would appear to have everything. She has suspected from the first that something is going on beneath the glossy surface of Law’s empire and is determined to root out the truth.

But then she is a slow thinker, Anna, suited to her work. Not brilliant, only sedulous. It is her talent to miss nothing, given time. (p150)

What she discovers is that an undercover organisation of top hackers is about to crack the code Law has created, and that if they succeed it could lead to the collapse of society as she knows it. John Law has secreted away massive reserves behind a wall of code, a bulwark of protection for himself and his family. His main concern is not for himself, however, but for what he has created – the perfectly abstract invention of Soft Gold, and his brilliant but vulnerable young son Nathan, who suffers from a severe form of congenital diabetes. The only thing Law wants to buy now is time – time to crack his own code and so discover its weakness before his enemies discover it for him and bring it down.

The last decade has seen a riot of literary speculation into the subject of financial meltdown – fiction and non-fiction, killer thrillers, stark analyses, blame games, righteous outrage and proposed solutions. What it has seen less of is any attempt to determine or describe the metaphyiscs of our current situation, to ask the philosophical question of what is money? The Cryptographer goes bravely out of its way to redress this balance. Hill’s summation of what he terms ‘The Fall’ is as devastating in its economy as it is in its failsafe grasp of the essentials:

By the time the floors are closed it is already too late. It is as if, through money, time has slipped backwards. In less than two hours, the world has been set back scores of years. The faces broadcast, later wiped out, sagging with the understanding that something has gone wrong, and so critically wrong that decades have been swept away, like ships and houses by great waves. Whole lives, if lives can be measured in money, and they can, since they are. In greed and generosity and desire. (p175)

It is with his exquisite practice of poetry – the distilling of a large idea into the compass of a few perfected words – that Hill infuses the body politic of science fiction with a new vitality. A. S. Byatt is right when she says that Hill has his own clear and complex, meditative way of inventing worlds. In Hill’s future London, there are hints that John Law may be ‘risking his life’ in deceiving the Revenue, while to read books is an eccentric pastime (‘you do still read books?’); a character’s handwriting is ‘scrawny, out of practice’, the personal letter written on paper is itself an almost extinct curiosity. It is ‘just two years since they cancelled the dollar’, and yet the scents and sensations of old, ‘touchable’ money itself, ‘the sour smell of alloy, the arcane traces of urine and cocaine on old notes’, are already the stuff of nostalgia. At a New Year’s party at Law’s vast London estate (he has purchased and relandscaped the whole of Erith), we see through Anna’s eyes how wealth can change the laws of physics if it is vast enough as, for a few hours at least, winter is transformed into spring:

It feels like the proof of something. That money can do anything, change whatever it touches. Like Midas, she thinks. The king who changed the world to gold. The gold that changed the king. She wonders if that is true of money, after all, though it is not what she has always believed. It is not what she sees in her own world, where people are not immutable but, still, stubborn-hearted, born into themselves. Ungolden. Where winter, despite everything, stays winter. (p129)

Hill’s uses of the present-impossible are deft and light – we are not projected or info-dumped inside our own possible future so much as already walking towards it under our own power. Most crucially though, the novel’s smooth narrative flow never becomes obfuscated by the demanding nature of its ideas.  The Cryptographer contains a mass of science fictional concepts and complex information, but we are guided effortlessly through those ideas in a language that is crystalline in its form, deceptive in its simplicity, and never less than beautiful. The Cryptographer is a unique and persuasive, original work of science fiction that contains not one word of science fictional jargon. Anyone who likes to read, whether they are habitual readers of SF or not, could pick up this book and be equally thrilled and disturbed by what it contains. It is a novel that requires concentration, but it is not a selfish book; for all its complexities it is still, at its heart, a novel about people. The Cryptographer shows us a future, but it shows it to us not through the eyes of an over-eager SF writer but of the people who have to live in it. It is not ‘about’ the future – it’s about us. And like all the best science fiction, it hasn’t dated. When Hill wrote The Crpytographer, the future he imagined was still twenty years away. With the passage of time it is now less than half that – and yet unlike so many other, more extravagant works of SF, Hill’s London 2021 does not feel less real the closer we approach it in realtime, but frighteningly more so. Anyone reading The Cryptographer today could be forgiven for believing that the manuscript was completed not a decade ago, but only yesterday.

But just how good is Hill’s novel really, as SF? I have to say I changed my mind on this point as the story progressed, and if you’d asked me the question fifty pages in and again at the end you’d have received two different answers. The literary excellence on display in The Cryptographer makes the book timeless, and as a mainstream novel it could be argued that it is wholly satisfying. We see a story unfold, and a conclusion of sorts is reached. The protagonist, Anna Moore, goes on a journey and is changed by it – she is not the same person at the end of the book as she was at the beginning. In a formal sense, The Cryptographer is beautifully worked. The coolness of its interior spaces – the obsidian, brushed steel and glass surfaces of the various office buildings where power is wielded then wrestled away then seized again – is mirrored in the novel’s language, an essay in restraint and control, the taut self-mastery that conceals deep emotion. But in terms of its science fiction, I came away with the regrettable feeling that The Cryptographer pulls its punches. The sense, so ominously present in the first half of the novel, that something huge and disastrous is about to be unleashed, ends in anticlimax. We are told that the collapse of Soft Gold has set the world back by as much as a hundred years, but the effects, the specifics of what this means are kept firmly off stage. We see little or nothing of what the world crash means in and for the lives of ordinary people. At one point, a character compares the collapse of Soft Gold with the disastrous hyper-inflation suffered by Weimar Germany in the 1920s. If you read a novel like Hans Fallada’s 1932 classic Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? you will come away in no doubt as to the shattering effects of this disaster, the way it broke millions of individual lives and propelled an idealistic nascent democracy into the arms of the most notorious megalomaniac of modern times. For Fallada’s protagonist, the eponymous, hard-working ‘little man’ with his new marriage and his modest dreams, everything, but everything, is at stake, and reading about what happens to him is a sobering, moving, and perhaps most importantly a deeply anger-making experience.

For the characters in The Cryptographer, the extent of their personal losses seems risible in comparison. They remove themselves to Scottish islands or to the north of Finland, where they take refuge in the kind of scrubbed-down, pleasantly remote cottages you might just as easily find in The Guardian’s travel supplement, and enjoy simple home-cooked food prepared by honest artisans who never went in for ‘the Electric’ in the first place. They give up their computers and take the radical step of using their old CD ROMS as drinks coasters (yes, really). They resign from the IR and spend time cataloguing their father’s collection of antiquarian books instead.

For all the talk of risk, there is no real risk here. The only things that Anna loses are things she was getting tired of in any case.

What I felt at the end of The Cryptographer was disappointment. I neither believed in nor cared about the ‘romance’ between Anna Moore and John Law, and I felt the immense promise of this novel had been wasted on trifles.

As someone who’s been known to argue that SF can often work better when it’s toned down a little, I found it amusing and ironic when I discovered that in the case of The Cryptographer what I actually felt in need of was more science fiction. I wanted the writer to follow through, to have the courage of his initial convictions, to take responsibility for the apocalypse he had created. As a novel like The Age of Miracles most aptly demonstrates, using SF as a sparkly stage dressing is an act of literary cowardice that is likely to rebound on you. There are those who maintain that the essential difference between SF and Fantasy is responsbility, and whilst mainstream writers do all manner of fine and subtle things with SF, what The Cryptographer finally shows us is that not to be true to science fiction’s core strength as a literature of ideas is, in the end, to do it a disservice. SF can learn a lot from the mainstream – the SF writer who reads Cormac McCarthy and doesn’t feel moved to up their game probably has their head in the sand – but mainstream writers like Hill and like Walker have just as much, if not more, to gain from reading some real science fiction.

If they want to write books that keep you up until three in the morning, that is.

Thought for the day

I guess the moral of the story is, give yourself free reign to write or paint or create the weirdest weird-ass shit you can possibly conceive of, and never worry about if it makes sense or is right or correct or follows the rules. Because, I guarantee that somewhere in the world, someone will read it or watch it or listen to whatever you’ve created and say, “this makes sense – this is about me“.

From an interview with Livia Llewellyn, just up at Weird Fiction Review. Includes excerpt from new ‘Obsidia’ story!

Locus poll round-up

The last days of November saw a final rush to place votes in the Locus All-Centuries poll before it closed at midnight on the 30th. I can’t say I blame anyone for leaving it to the last minute, because getting those lists finalised and then ranked added up to a pretty steep time commitment. I hope these eleventh hour participants, together with the consequent surge in online publicity for the ballot, did manage to up the voting figures a bit – I read somewhere that the response to the poll had been disappointing up till then. This is sad to hear, because of course the fewer the votes cast, the less meaningful the final result (shades of BFAs 2011 – either that or the recent Tory police privatisation bill… ) It seems to me that part of the problem in the case of the Locus poll has been the sheer size of the thing – the voting form looked daunting, even if in reality it needn’t have been. This issue could have been offset considerably by the introduction of two simple measures: 1) the poll ‘rules’ should have made it clearer that you didn’t have to fill in all the categories for your vote to be eligible – if you just wanted to vote for novels, or for SF and not Fantasy, for example, that was perfectly OK, and 2) the category for novelette should have been expunged (or, as I saw someone more memorably put it, killed with fire). The novelette is a pretty worthless category in any case – basically it’s just a long short story – and given that it’s difficult, not to say impossible, to obtain the word counts for eligible works outside of the Locus suggestions lists, it made the whole novelette segment feel not only superfluous to requirements but also an active discouragement to people filling in those massive voting forms.

The ballot is a good thing, because it’s interesting to see what the SFF hivemind is thinking, and it deserves to flourish, so let’s hope that Locus learn from their mistakes this year and make the next grand poll a little more user-friendly.

These issues apart, it’s been great to see some voters posting their ballots online. The selections have been genuinely interesting, and it’s been heartening to note how readily those people who did vote have been departing from the suggestions lists to include works more personally important to them. Niall Harrison, Ian Sales, Cheryl Morgan, Rich Horton and Martin Lewis have all posted their excellent lists, there’s another great one at SF Strangelove, and the whole business was discussed extensively on the Coode Street podcast. My own ballot, if you missed it earlier, is here. But the biggest round of applause must go to Matthew Cheney, whose ballot – so imaginative, so ambitious – was a balm to my soul. How wonderful to choose Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (raises fist and yells with delight). And Straub too! (I dithered long and hard between The Buffalo Hunter and The Juniper Tree in the 20th century novella category, eventually plumping for The Buffalo Hunter, so it’s good to see MC’s vote go to The Juniper Tree instead, although actually anything from Houses Without Doors would be a worthy candidate – I still feel bad for not including ‘A Short Guide to the City’ in the short story category, because I love it to bits.) Cheney’s choices could quite easily serve as the basis for a 2013 reading list as they include a good amount of stuff that I’ve had my eye on for some time: Thomas Disch’s 334 (I read the title section in the anthology Anticipations years ago and thought it was amazing), Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (I saw a ref to that just the other day and noted it down TBR pdq), Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation, and of course Delany, Delany, Delany, who I’ve not read anywhere near enough of and yet feel should be essential to me.

Matt Cheney’s ballot brings so many exceptional works and writers to the forefront of the mind – which should surely be the whole point of the Locus poll in any case – and comprises exactly the kind of radical and unorthodox thinking SFF readers, writers and critics need to be aiming for. Bravo.