Monthly Archives: March 2013

BSFA Short Fiction shortlist

It being the very eve of Eastercon, I’d been thinking about writing a blog post on the six stories that are up for this year’s BSFA Award, because awards shortlists are always interesting (if not always for the right reasons) but then I thought again. As it happens I’ve either met, corresponded with or been published alongside pretty much everyone on that list, and so for me to undertake any kind of detailed public analysis of their work would make me deeply uncomfortable and anything approaching an objective judgement would most likely prove impossible in any case. Luckily for us all, both Niall Alexander and Martin Lewis have blogged the shortlist with their usual high level of informed insight, and I commend their postings with enthusiasm. But travelling up to town yesterday, I found myself reading some stories that for me threw all the problems we inevitably find with such shortlists into stark relief, and so I thought I might say something more general about short fiction awards instead.

The stories I was reading were by Scott Bradfield, from his 1988 short fiction collection The Secret Life of Houses. I’d heard of Bradfield – who was published alongside Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard in early issues of Interzone – but not yet read him, and so this was my first encounter with his fiction. I very quickly found him to be one of those very special writers whose first effect is to make you question pretty much every word you’ve written until now. Reading his ‘The Flash! Kid’ made me laugh out loud with satisfaction at having stumbled across such a wonderfully original and raucously alive SF story (because yes, this is science fiction – one of the five BSFA Award nominees for 1984, no less) and reading ‘The Dream of the Wolf’ made me want to rip up everything I’ve written to date and do better from tomorrow.

Canis lupus youngi, canis lupus crassodon, canis niger rufus, Larry thought, and boarded the RTD at Beverly and Fairfax. The wolf, he thought. The wolf of the dream, the wolf of the world. He showed the driver his pass. Wolves in Utah, Northern Mexico, Baffin Island, even Hollywood. Wolves secretly everywhere, Larry thought, and moved down the crowded aisle. Elderly women jostled fitfully in their seats like birds on a wire. (TSLOH p3)

Every page of Bradfield’s prose turns up wonderful stuff like this – a constant awareness of the beauty of words, an intellect that clearly delights in juxtaposing the mundane with the fantastic, the recognisable with the totally out there. When you discover a writer who is so clearly his own person, who doesn’t give a toss about what others in his ‘peer group’ might be writing or what he ‘should’ be writing about, I feel like stopping whatever less important thing I happen to be doing and just celebrating to myself, and then later on, perhaps, celebrating here.

Because my God aren’t these the kind of stories we want to see more of?

The way Bradfield constructs his stories is deliriously idiosyncratic, and again one senses that he doesn’t have much time for the kind of rules that say a short story should have a clearly defined message or theme, that it should consist of an easily identifiable beginning and middle and end, that it should ideally be 3-6,000 words long. Rather, his stories enact themselves upon you, and they go on as long as Bradfield feels they should, opening new internal mini-chapters on fresh incident just when you think another, less brave writer might have wrapped things up. Of course in reality these stories are as artfully constructed as any tale by Chekhov – the reappearance of the instigatory termites in the final paragraph of ‘The Flash! Kid’, for example, is a sweetly ironical proof of that – but the hugely overriding impression on reading Bradfield is of freedom, of space, and of waywardness.

Of course, one of the big problems with choosing which works to nominate for short fiction awards is the vast quantity of eligible material to be considered. No reader, writer or fan can subscribe to every magazine, or even hope to read more than a select proportion of the often very fine material that is increasingly available online. The other problem – and it’s a more subtle one – is that all too often and all too early a consensus begins to emerge for which stories are ‘the’ stories in any given year. The ‘Year’s Bests’ come out, the readers’ polls are drawn up, and from the moment those lists are published there’s a subtle kind of background pressure not to bother looking beyond these, because all the necessary reading and considering has already been done for us by others. I’ve felt such a pressure myself – and of course as a writer I may even have benefited from it. I’m not saying that Year’s Bests are a bad thing – I enjoy them very much, find them useful as a reader and have felt extremely honoured to be selected for them as a writer – just that we shouldn’t forget to look and think beyond them and argue the cause of overlooked material where we feel that’s necessary.

How, for example, can all the major ‘Best of 2012’ anthologies have overlooked M. John Harrison’s ‘In Autotelia’? And if I don’t see some of Helen Marshall’s stories turning up on the F/H shortlists I will count it as a serious oversight.

I applaud Abigail Nussbaum’s ‘Short Fiction Snapshot’ initiative at Strange Horizons, which should at the very least do something to help develop the critical apparatus around short fiction, to bring more stories into the spotlight and – equally importantly – make us as readers and reviewers sample a wider variety of short fiction and think about it at a deeper level.

And when the time comes to start thinking about next year’s awards (which I for one am looking forward to particularly as I’ll have Hugo voting rights for the first time) perhaps it would be a good idea for all of us to take up the cause of some of our own particular favourites in the field of short fiction, to write about them at our blogs and in the zines, to spread the word, to look beyond the usual publications, to encourage and celebrate not just the familiar but the radical and the excellent and the truly noteworthy, the stories that make you angry with yourself for not yet writing as well as you think you one day might.

Stoker

A number of reviews of Park Chan-wook’s new film Stoker have talked a lot about Hitchcock, but for me the movie owes more – so much more – to Park’s own earlier and inimitable ‘Vengeance’ trilogy.

There have been some miserable and pointless remakes of Asian horror movies. While Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of Hideo Nakata’s classic 1998 film Ring was not a bad effort, the Guard brothers’ 2009 The Uninvited, the Hollywood reboot of Kim Jee-woon’s deliciously haunting and strange 2003 film A Tale of Two Sisters, was so bland it was an insult, and you don’t have to go a million miles to find other examples. Park’s insistently compelling new movie provides the perfect antidote; for Stoker, the surface glamour of Hollywood is just so much camouflage. Stoker has not so much the feel of a remake as a rethink: what would happen if you took the characterlessly opulent interiors, vapidly beautiful people and self-indulgent first-world ennui that is the staple background to so much Hollywood horror, and forcibly injected it with some of the cinematic elegance, narrative ambiguity and edge-of-the-seat dramatic tension that has characterised much of the recent speculative cinema coming out of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea? The answer to that question is Stoker.

I adore Park’s films. I admire his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy as one of the most strongly argued cinematic achievements of recent times, and I thought his 2009 foray into the vampire genre, Thirst, was stunning. (I mean, come on, a vampire movie based on Therese Raquin? Genius!) Stoker is Park’s first English-language movie, and it concerns itself with vampires of a different kind. There’s no blood-sucking here, but in homage to the movie’s title there’s plenty of emotional vampirism, with Matthew Goode’s smoothly sinister Uncle Charlie mad as one of the Mantle twins, and Nicole Kidman – as Evelyn Stoker, a disappointed and jealous heiress sleepwalking her way through mid-life – hasn’t played anyone this demented since Eyes Wide Shut. And if it’s blood-letting you’re looking for, Park, here as everywhere, isn’t one to leave you disappointed.

The film’s surfaces are luscious, velvety, dripping with menace and double meaning and gorgeous hyper-realism, and Park’s use of music – as in the ‘Vengeance’ films – is outstanding (Clint Mansell’s Philip-Glass-like score, in the piano stool scene particularly, brings to mind Tony Scott’s delirious use of Schubert’s piano trios in The Hunger). Indeed there is something of the ballet about this film, a slow choreography of disaster that mounts towards a noisily inevitable – and almost joyous – finale of violence.

For those who like their horror wild and weird, this film is a must.

A couple more updates

I’ve spent the latter part of this week giving the page proofs of Stardust a final going over. The signed inlay sheets for the special signed edition went back to PS yesterday, and I’m happy and excited to report that the book should soon be at the printer’s. I’ll be posting the fantastic cover design by Ben Baldwin and Mike Smith here as soon as PS release it officially. Suffice it to say I’m delighted, both with the dustjacket and the look of the book generally. It was strange reading it through. When I did the copyedit a couple of months back I was so focussed on the technical side of things that as so often happens with me I came away without a clear impression of what the book was like. This final read-through was different. I was trying as far as possible to put myself in the position of reader as opposed to writer, and I was surprised by how often I was surprised by what I read. It was a good experience. I’m very much looking forward to publication day.

To consolidate this clearing-of-the-decks, I’ve also been updating my website. You’ll find a greatly expanded Free Fiction page, as well as individual pages for each of my books, with new reviews, comments or images to be added as they appear and to include a complete bibliography of my short fiction in the nearish future. The About and Articles pages have also been revised. Some of these tasks have been long overdue and I’m pleased to have things properly up to date.

Three bits of book news

A few things just in. Firstly, my collection from NewCon Press, Microcosmos, is now available for pre-order.

This book, with beautiful cover art (as always) from Ben Baldwin, collects together seven stories written since the publication of my first collection A Thread of Truth in 2007. When Ian Whates of NewCon first approached me about putting this volume together I saw it as a wonderful oppotunity to present an updated snapshot of my short fiction writing. Especially exciting to me is the fact that Microcosmos contains two brand new stories – ‘A.H.’ and ‘Higher Up’, both of which were written within the last twelve months. The volume also contains ‘Chaconne’, a story I wrote for Ex Occidente Press’s Bulgakov-themed anthology The Master in Cafe Morphine. Master was a very limited issue and sold out more or less straight away, so I’m very happy to see ‘Chaconne’ – a story I’m rather fond of about Russia, music and cats – being made available to a wider audience.  You can order Microcosmos online here. I’m also looking forward to signing copies at Eastercon, where the book will be officially launched later on this month.

Another piece of exciting news is that my novella Spin, a reimagining of the Arachne myth and the second in TTA Press’s standalone novella series, has gone to press and is now also available for pre-order.

This little book is very close to my heart and I’m really rather excited about it coming out. You can read more about Spin here – there’s been some very generous advance press – and also place your order.

And finally, Eibonvale Press have just announced the table of contents for their forthcoming railway-themed anthology Rustblind and Silverbright, to include my brand new novella ‘Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle’. I won’t say this story wrote itself (if anyone knows the secret to that technique, do let me in on it… ) but it was one of those rare stories that did seem confident of itself from the first, and gave me genuine and daily pleasure throughout the writing process. Most stories I write take a considerable amount of time to find their form – it’s not unusual for me to rewrite the beginning of a story three or four times before I’m happy with the way it’s going. But I loved the voice of Marian, this story’s narrator, from the off, and I was happy to let her take charge!

I can’t wait to see what David Rix at Eibonvale comes up with for the cover design of this anthology – given his passion for trains, it promises to be a beauty.

And talking of the Clarke…

(This year’s Clarke Award nominations – in colour. Photo by Tom Hunter.)

Being a Clarke judge must be hell.

The judges of the 2011 Booker Prize were famously accused of lowering the standards by choosing ‘readability’ over worthiness or innovation. The 2012 Clarke jury were accused of something similar, even though in the case of at least one of the books on their elected shortlist, readable would not be the first adjective to spring to mind. The 2012 Booker lot staged a backlash for literary excellence under Peter Stothard, although it has to be said that in the end what the contest actually came down to was a rather perfunctory two-way battle between Hilary Mantel and Will Self.

Whether this year’s Clarke jury will stage their own backlash in response to what happened last year remains to be seen.

All calls for revolution aside though, the job of picking a shortlist must be bloody difficult. The Clarke’s mission is to select ‘the best science fiction novel of the year’ but how exactly is ‘the best’ to be defined? The fact is, we will all have different answers to that question, and perhaps the true way forward for the Clarke lies in accepting this. My own first criterion for excellence is invariably stylistic – is whichever novel we happen to be discussing well written? But even with my most ingrained prejudices fully intact I can see that such an apparently straightforward question might elicit a wide variety of responses. M. John Harrison’s Empty Space and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 are both well written – but they stand more or less at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the intention of their SF. One might define Robinson’s oeuvre as the epitome of what Clarkeian SF is all about: a philosophical-scientific enquiry into the nature or likelihood of certain futures, an examination of the place human beings might occupy in an evolving universe and the consequent setbacks and developments in scientific thought. Robinson’s work is what you’d call real SF – and the quiet and stately elegance of his literary style is proof if proof were needed that this kind of science fiction can also be beautifully written and interesting in matters of form.

It’s precisely this kind of science fiction that M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy seeks to refute. Empty Space has little regard for scientific rigour and attainable futures – except to undermine our perception that these might exist. And yet I believe that Harrison’s book is somehow more keenly searching than Robinson’s, describing with searing accuracy just what it is to be human at the beginning of the 21st century. I also believe it to be a masterpiece of the modern novel. But however passionately I might maintain this, I should never forget that mine is just one opinion among a vast swathe of potential opinions, none of which can ever be an absolute.

Eighty-two books, five sets of competing opinions, an expectant constituency. What must that be like? For, no matter how much the judges may like and respect one another, they will nonetheless be competing. Because books, thank goodness, still generate passion, and each of the judges is duty bound to fight passionately for their own opinion.

As readers, writers and critics we like to cling nobly to the concept of objective judgement; the truth is that when it comes to books there is no such thing. The best we can strive for is a better informed subjectivity. What we argue for, in the end, will come down to that most personally partial of arbiters: gut instinct.

Let it be so.

Going by my gut instinct and according to the annual tradition (come on, admit it, this is better than Christmas) what do I think this year’s Clarke shortlist is going to look like? I’m finding it difficult to call, to be honest. If last year proved anything, it’s that absolutely anything can happen, and with even more books in contention this year that seems even more true. To consider them properly I had first to cut down the numbers. I divided the list of nominations into three separate groups: the books that in my opinion weren’t eligible (the zombie novels, the horror novels, the fantasy novels), the books that I couldn’t see progressing any further (fine entertainment I am sure, but with nothing especially new or relevant or stylish to say about SF now) and then the rest, those that felt to me like actual contenders. There were quite a few on that list, enough to make several credible line-ups of Clarke Award finalists. In view of this it seemed most sensible to come up with two separate shortlists of my own – the one I think the judges might pick, and the six books I would pick myself if it were down to me. Neither of these shortlists can claim to be objective, and both are governed by the huge caveat that unlike the judges I have not read all the books! Not even one tenth of them so far. So my choices are based not on the expertise that only such a complete reading would provide, but on background knowledge, obsessive review- and opinion-watching, readings of authors’ previous books, the careful study of Kindle previews, and – of course – gut instinct.

 

THE SHORTLIST I THINK THE JUDGES MIGHT PICK

Pure – Julianna Baggott

Dark Eden – Chris Beckett

Intrusion – Ken MacLeod

Jack Glass – Adam Roberts

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

Well, first up is KSR’s 2312 for all the reasons outlined above. It’s a good, solid, safe and worthy heartland SF choice. I’ve picked Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion for much the same reasons: it’s thought-provoking, discussion-inducing core SF. MacLeod’s use of a female protagonist is interesting. The novel doesn’t have the refined elegance of 2312, but it perhaps makes up for that in the seriousness of its intention, its uncompromising commitment to the pursuit of ideas which makes the writing if a little perfunctory then most definitely felt. And I admire that. Then we have Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass. I’m actually a third of the way through reading this. It races merrily along, it’s wilfully idiosyncratic as only Roberts can be. It spins a good yarn in an ironical tone. For me personally I think it’s going to end up being one of those books that go in one ear and out the other. I think it’s too lightweight to make a permanent impression on me, and although I’m finding it enjoyable to read I’m unlikely to want to come back and read it again, which for me is a central criterion of what makes a good book great. But it’s quirky and different from anything else on the list. I can understand why people like it – and why it might end up being a popular choice among the judges.

Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden has received a lot of good press from critics I trust. Here’s a writer who’s worked seriously and very hard in the genre for some years now. He’s clearly very committed to what he’s doing. I have the feeling he deserves to be on this shortlist. I haven’t read the book yet and it worries me that the stylistic gimmick behind it – the decayed language trope already familiar from novels such as Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Will Self’s The Book of Dave, and the central section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – has been used rather often in the past. But that’s just my prejudice speaking – and all literature is to an extent reworking. Julianna Baggott’s Pure is YA, but once again I’ve seen a lot of positive coverage from good people, and from the sample I’ve read, Pure has appearance of being boldly imaginative and rather well written. I like the tone of it, the feel of it. It would be an adventurous choice for the judges. On to the shortlist it goes.

G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen is a book I’ve been interested in since I first heard about it mid-way through last year. This is another novel I’ve not gotten around to reading yet, but I most certainly will make time for this one, whether it ends up on the real shortlist or not. I like very much what I have read of it so far. I admire its seriousness, its poetry, its timeliness, its willingness to talk openly about subjects of importance. I hope it gets picked.

 

THE SHORTLIST I WOULD LOVE TO SEE

Empty Space – M. John Harrison

The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus

Kimberley’s  Capital Punishment – Richard Milward

The Testimony – James Smythe

Alif the Unseen – G. Willow Wilson

The Method – Juli Zeh

It’s no secret how much I admire M. John Harrison’s Empty Space – indeed I happen to think Harrison is physically incapable of writing a bad sentence. Any shortlist that does not include this book will by my reckoning be forfeiting a serious degree of credibility.

The only book that unites my two shortlists is the G. Willow Wilson. For all the reasons given above, I want it on there. I’ve not read James Smythe’s The Testimony yet, but like Alif the Unseen it’s been on my radar for a good eight months now and I intend to get to it very soon. I like the premise of this book (Smythe’s other submission, The Explorer, sounds great too, but I couldn’t pick both) and I like the form it takes – all those cleverly overlapping short chapters using different voices. I like the writing – plain but in a good way, well fashioned, direct. I like the perceptive things James Smythe has been saying online about what SF means to him and I love his Stephen King columns on the Guardian books blog. His is an intelligent new voice and he deserves to be encouraged.

Juli Zeh’s The Method was a surprise to me. It’s great to see a work in translation gaining a readership (which this book has been doing – see excellent reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller and Dan Hartland) and I was delighted to see The Method on the (very wonderful) Kitschies shortlist for Red Tentacle. The thing is, I didn’t think I was actually going to like this book much. I’ve read so many dystopias in my time, and the premise of this one – a society where it’s illegal to be ill – sounded a bit contrived to me. But when I started reading the preview I found I loved it. This book is a writer’s book and I warmed to it instantly – the writer addressing the reader, its postmodernism, like the voice of a less vengeful Elfriede Jelinek. I love the way it subverts those same conventions of dystopia I was so concerned about, creating something quite different in their place, alive and fresh. Zeh’s approach is intelligent, knowing and very much her own. I was sorry when the preview ended. I will absolutely be reading this, and more by Juli Zeh as soon as I can.

And then there’s Marcus and Milward. The premise of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (children’s talk can kill you) is totally insane but when someone is this good a writer who the hell cares? As with the Zeh, this was a book that I knew was bound to be good but felt I wouldn’t like. And again I found it sneakily proving my own private and prejudiced thesis that it’s not the subject, it’s the writing, the writing, the writing that matters, the how and not the what. Admiration and jealousy and pins-and-needles-making excitement are what take me over now when I think about this novel, and this writer. I don’t think The Flame Alphabet will be on the judges shortlist, not in a million years – like Empty Space it’s the kind of novel that steals SF tropes and forces them to fit its own nefarious purposes – but if it was it would make me whoop and dance about. And that goes double for my final choice, Richard Milward’s Kimberley’s Capital Punishment. I first heard about this novel from Nick Royle, who was reviewing it for the The Independent. It went on my TBR pile for that reason – but as so often happens it got swept aside by books I was down to read for review, books that happened to seem more necessary at the time, etc etc etc and it wasn’t until yesterday that I actually got around to sampling it. I fell in love at first paragraph. It reminded me instantly of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, which is a book I worship. Milward clearly belongs to the same guild of inspired visionaries as James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Nicola Barker. This book makes me thankful that there are writers out there still doing stuff like this, still willing (in the face of the mass market’s mass will to mass blandness) to take these kind of risks in writing what they want to, and nothing less. It’s the kind of book I’d have no idea how to write myself, but wish to God I could.

Kimberley’s Capital Punishment will no way win the Clarke, and I’m more than aware that there will be many who will insist with perhaps some justification that my preferred shortlist is so wilfully perverse, so desperately lacking in what they might call ‘proper SF credentials’ that far from presenting a snapshot of where we’re at right now, what it does is collect together a random group of books that have nothing cogent to say about SF whatsoever. I would argue the opposite, that putting your arse on the line is what makes great writing, that daring to be innovative and sincere and just a little bit crazy is what speculative fiction is actually all about. Not an art of the predictable future, but of the wayward mind. But I would have to say that, wouldn’t I? It’s my gut instinct.

Write The Future

Just a quick shout out for Tom Hunter, Award Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, who’s recently announced plans to hold an awesome-sounding afternoon of creative talks and presentations around the interconnecting disciplines of science, future technology and speculative fiction. The Write The Future event will be held on May 1st at the Royal Society. The winner of this year’s Clarke award will be announced at a separate event that same evening at the same venue.

Tom says:

“Write The Future is a micro-conference designed as a programme of creative short talks on the transformative power of science, technology, communication and speculative fiction – drawing parallels between these interconnecting disciplines and showcasing the power of the human imagination.

The concept is inspired by the life and work of science fiction author, inventor and futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke, with each talk seeking to encapsulate a single inspirational and innovative idea from the fields of scientific research, digital disruption, creative communications and science fiction publishing.”

The line-up of speakers is to include scientists, writers, and other workers in the creative industries and I think the whole thing sounds fantastic. Write The Future presents an invaluable opportunity to publicize and promote the Clarke Award and SF generally. It gives SF readers, writers and publishers the chance to celebrate this fascinating business we’re all involved in. It also promises to be a wonderful showcase for new ideas, which are after all the stuff we’re all so keen to get our hands on.

Write The Future looks like a big step up for the Clarke, and Tom and the Award committee have launched a Kickstarter Odyssey with a target of £2001 (geddit?) to get the project off to a healthy start. We’ve already pledged our support – it seemed a no-brainer really, because our pledges will double as our tickets to the event – and we’re looking forward to watching the pledge total rise as many more fans and writers come on board over the coming days.

And wtih the project boasting such a delicious acronym, how could you resist..?

You can pledge your support for Write The Future here.