Monthly Archives: September 2013

Familiar

It isn’t clear when this happened to her; perhaps it happened to everyone at once. But at some point the internet became more real than the physical world. There was a time when it seemed like a dream – an implausible thing with uncertain implications. And then suddenly it was everything. There are people, she knows, who don’t use it, who have no presence on it, who can’t be searched for, who can only be accessed by going to their house and knocking on their door. But these people are the dream now. They’re like ghosts. (Familiar p50)

Reading these words so soon after ‘Memory Palace’ felt strange and completely appropriate. J. Robert Lennon’s new novel Familiar is the story of Elisa Macalaster Brown, a woman who believes she has somehow crossed the boundary into a parallel universe. As a serious exploration of an inexplicable event, this is a speculative novel of rare quality: mysterious and unsettling, rendered in a clear and pragmatic language that acts as a perfect counterpoint to the inherent weirdness of the story.

Yet Familiar is also Familial – and Lisa’s story works just as effectively as a novel of family, as an account of a family falling apart. That Lisa is finally unable to distinguish which of her existences is in fact the ‘real’ one is a persuasive and elegant illustration of both the concept of inviolable selfhood and the inevitable and corrosive forces of entropy.

A short, powerful, beautiful and compelling novel of character that deserves to become a science fiction classic.

Memory Palace and other stories

“At the moment we seem to be in a place with narrative fiction where there are people quite happy to write very straight-up nineteenth century realist stuff and people who want to play Derridean language games exploring textuality. I would like to say that there is a third interesting thing that fiction writers can do, which is to take on, in a speculative realist way, scientific ideas about the self and to engage with social complexity: how memory constitutes itself. So for all these reasons thinking about the self is important to me.”

(Hari Kunzru, in an interview with 3am Magazine)

We were at the V&A on Friday, attending the exhibition of graphic arts, installation and text entitled Memory Palace, based around the 10,000-word novella of the same name by Hari Kunzru. The exhibition is something of a new concept. Instead of working with a pre-existing text, the expo’s curators, Laurie Britton Newall and Ligaya Salazar, commissioned Kunzru to write an original work, knowing from the outset that it was to form the basis of a collaboration between one writer and 20 visual artists. (The curators explain more about this process in an essay here.)

I’ve been keen to catch up with Kunzru’s fiction for quite some time now. I’ve read his journalistic non-fiction with great pleasure, and his novels come highly recommended by critics I trust. Also, Kunzru has a refreshingly open and constructive attitude to science fiction, a fact readily apparent from this piece he wrote about Michael Moorcock for The Guardian in 2011. As explicitly full-on SF, his novella ‘Memory Palace’ seemed the ideal place to start and I was keen to visit the expo. I purchased the book more than a month ago in readiness, but due to an insanely expanding list of reading commitments I found the day of our trip to the V&A dawning with the novella still unread.

As it turned out, this was a good thing, because it meant I finished reading the text just shy of London Bridge, and stepped into the world of the exhibition just a short while later with Kunzru’s story still headily intact in my mind. In this state of full receptiveness, the exhibits seemed like a natural extension of what I’d just read, a logical enhancement of the experience. The quality of the graphic art was superlative. That the artists involved in the project were excited and inspired by Kunzru’s words – that they found them relevant and provoking and significant in their own lives – was movingly apparent in every piece on show. The work was also very beautiful. ‘Memory Palace’ shows us a radically unpleasant, dangerous and intensely possible-seeming vision of the future – yet, tellingly, the overall sensation evoked by this exhibit is one of warmth and great humanity.

This exhibition has clearly made a big impression on people. Looking at the online write-ups though, the thing that strikes me is how little direct commentary there has been on the full text of Kunzru’s story itself. There seems to be a tacit acceptance of the curators’ assertion that ‘print … is losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word’, that Memory Palace the exhibition – ‘a physically immersive illustrated story that explores the idea of an exhibition as a walk-in book’ – is in its way the determining experience, more complex and more complete than ‘Memory Palace’ the story that inspired it.

Personally, I would have to disagree. I loved the exhibition – but I know that I will remember it chiefly as a very beautiful illustration of Kunzru’s text. Walking among the exhibits was inspiring and exciting – but as an intellectual and creative experience it could not compare even remotely with my private, concentrated reading of Kunzru’s story as we rushed towards an early draft of the London he seemed to be describing.

For me, words on a page are still the most immersive and interactive of all media. Best of all, you don’t need a machine or even a power source to get involved with them – they can be produced and explored and made to shimmer by anyone armed with a pencil and a scrap of paper. Print losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word? I have yet to be convinced, I’m afraid.

‘Memory Palace’ is set in London 500 years in the future. An electromagnetic event of seismic proportions has destroyed our digital present, plunging the world into a new version of the Dark Ages. London is ruled by the ‘Thing’, a class of warriors convinced that mankind’s only salvation lies in a return to the Edenic state. Technology is outlawed. The act of remembering is banned. As a member of a secret organization of ‘memorialists’, the narrator of ‘Memory Palace’ sits in prison awaiting interrogation. He believes it all but inevitable that his time in prison will end with his execution.

The table, the bed, the rivets in the metal door – nothing about this cell is specific. None of it carries a trace. I could be anywhere, at any time in history; there have always been places like this. One thing I know: the blankness is not an accident. It is the meaning of my cell, the message my captors want to convey to me. (p25)

‘Memory Palace’, with its taut, intense interchanges between prisoner and captor, instantly evokes memories of allied texts – Winston Smith’s conversations with O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, Montag’s journey from law-enforcer to law-breaker in Fahrenheit 451, Ivan’s story of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov – but in the power of its imagery, its elastically ironical, quicksand-silver use of language and the strength and originality of its London writing, this story gains through these resonances and is an essential and honourable addition to the core canon of science fictional dystopia. I tend to have a very physical reaction to writing I believe to be good, to be the real thing – and reading ‘Memory Palace’ made my heart rate increase, my breath quicken. To see a writer so perfectly achieve what he set out to do, to do it beautifully and with such conviction, is the greatest inspiration another writer could ask for.

I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to buy the book and read this story. I would also encourage those who do read this story and like it to remember to include it on their SF awards nominations ballots for 2014. There are always a good few complaints during awards season about the poor quality of short fiction available for nomination. There are plenty of private moments when I find myself thinking people don’t complain enough – but as with all categories, the quality work is out there, you just have to look for it, sometimes outside of the more obvious venues. I’ve already highlighted stories by Sofia Samatar, Elizabeth Knox and M. John Harrison (if you haven’t bought and read ‘Cave & Julia’ already, then do so NOW) as shining examples of stories that deserve support and recognition. Kunzru’s ‘Memory Palace’ is another, the kind of story I envy for its grace, its articulacy, its passion, both for the subject in hand and for the words used to explore it. This is the kind of SF I want to be reading – and to be writing.

(A quick afterword on the physical book. If you can’t get to London to see the exhibition itself, don’t worry, because Memory Palace the book is a stunningly lovely and readily portable version of many of the things you would see at the V&A, the exhibition in your pocket, as it were. It contains high quality reproductions of many of the graphic works, together witb preliminary sketches for the installations. Most importantly it contains the full text of ‘Memory Palace’ – the one thing the exhibition could not practically contain, but that is the rationale and pivotal component of the entire enterprise.)

“On YA”

I read a blog post by Adam Roberts over the weekend, in which he talked interestingly about the cultural significance of so-called Young Adult fiction and the challenge it presents to literary prizes like the Booker, which, as Adam would have it, ‘likes complex, challenging art’ but that which ‘never, ever rewards primitivist art.’

Adam wrote his post in response to an article on the OUP blog by a colleague of his at Royal Holloway, Robert Eaglestone, and a follow-up discussion on Twitter about the Booker shortlist. Eaglestone argues that said shortlist is diverse and innovative, Adam counters that in ignoring SF, crime, and YA, the Booker is deliberately avoiding engagement with three of the most culturally significant literary trends of the present time, thereby rendering itself irrelevant and parochial.

Familiar arguments then, and I’d say I’ve found myself on Adam’s side in those arguments far more frequently than not. I admire Adam’s literary criticism hugely – it combines erudition with a sharpness of wit that do not always make a natural pairing. His commentary on last year’s Booker was a tour de force and a joy to read. Why then, apart from the fact that I normally respect Adam so much as a critic, did I find myself becoming more and more uncomfortable with his post on YA? Why did I spend a significant amount of time over the weekend thinking about it, and coming finally to the decision that I had to reply?

Well, mostly because of this:

Imagine a music prize that has, through the 70s and 80s and up to the present, shortlisted only abstruse jazz, contemporary classical and Gentle-Giant-style prog rock concept albums. I love my prog rock, and partly I do so because it ticks all those aesthetic boxes I mention above—it is complex and challenging and intricate music. But I wouldn’t want to suggest that prog has had anything like the cultural impact or importance as pop, punk or rap. That would be silly. So how would you tell the judges picking those shortlists about the Ramones, the Pistols and the Clash? How would you persuade them that they’re missing out not just good music but actually the music that really matters?

Which is all well and good – once again, I agree with Adam. The problem is that the analogy he is presenting seems utterly false, because the literary equivalents of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash (and Kristin Hersh and Siouxie and Patti Smith) are not Suzanne Collins, J. K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, as Adam would have them here, but Charles Bukowski, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Sarah Kane, Janice Galloway and (much though he pisses me off a lot of the time) Bret Easton Ellis. In terms of sophistication, formal achievement, and the way their product is received by its intended audience, Meyer et al are actually closer to the manufactured boy- and girl-bands that (like Meyer, Rowling and Collins) started coming to prominence in the nineties and noughties. Both are a cultural phenomenon, yes – but in terms of what one might call the Ongoing Literary Project (and the Booker Prize is expressly about the Ongoing Literary Project) their status is negligible. Complaining that Booker will never reward the ‘artistic primitivism’ of Breaking Dawn is like complaining that the jury will never award the prize to Fifty Shades of Grey.

There is another crucial point here that Adam never addresses. The punk and alternative bands of the 1970s (and continuing into the present day) were and are themselves made up of (necessarily slightly older) young adults, making music for themselves, for their peers, in the way that best expresses their view of the world and their fears for its future. Commercial YA fiction is (in the vast majority of cases) written by adults, for consumption by readers younger than they are, or to call it by its proper name, for the young adult market. Moreover, the market certainly and in many cases the books Adam names in his blog post are not progressive, as he suggests, but didactic. The Twilight series certainly is, and both his books and his many interviews make it impossible to forget that Philip Pullman was a teacher before he ever became a full time writer.

Mass market YA is not representative of some kind of social revolution, nor is it even properly zeitgeisty. Adam talks about the Harry Potter novels as ‘one of the great representations of school in Western culture,’ yet how many kids in Britain today could realistically compare their own schooldays with Harry’s time at Hogwarts, and I’m not just talking about the magic? Adam lauds the way sex is characterised in the Twilight books as ‘something simultaneously compelling and alarming, that draws you on and scares you away in equal measure’ – well, if that’s how you want to describe the bizarre and (to me) seriously dodgy amalgam of titillation and partisan prudery that is the strongest characteristic of these narratives, then OK.  If you don’t, then you’ll be bound to admit that most of the most popular YA series are – like the manufactured pop that dates even as you download it – anodyne and half baked even in cultural terms, let alone in literary terms.

Let me make myself clear: it is not YA as such that I’m objecting to (much though I personally dislike the rather pointless label that has been slapped on it) but Adam’s (devil’s advocate? can he really be serious?) insistence on the lowest common denominator, on his confusion here of the popular with the excellent or culturally significant.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with young adults reading, enjoying, discussing, role playing or writing fan fiction about Harry Potter or Twilight. There’s no doubt that the power of story that exists in these books is considerable, and marvellous, and that the authors can and should be congratulated and rewarded for helping to instil in younger people an enjoyment of reading and perhaps also of writing that will often continue into adulthood. There’s nothing inherently wrong with adults reading and enjoying this kind of popular YA either, so long as they acknowledge it for what it is, which is literary comfort food. But what Adam seems to be doing in his article is the equivalent of demanding that Star Trek novelisations should be placed on a level playing field, in literary prize terms, with seriously intended and formally accomplished works of speculative fiction such as those produced by M. John Harrison or Liz Jensen or Simon Ings or even Adam himself. Bollocks, is what I say to that. If we want YA to be taken seriously, shouldn’t we be pointing readers – and critics, and the judges of literary prizes – away from the sludge at the bottom of the literary barrel and towards those books and writers that genuinely do represent excellence, and cultural significance, and literary innovation in their writing for young adults? I’m sure that’s what Adam would do if he were arguing a similar case for SF, so why not here? Because (as with SF, as with crime) there are a wealth of books that fit into the young adult bracket that are also worth reading as literature. Natasha Carthew’s Winter Damage, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, Helen Grant’s The Glass Demon and Rachel Hartman’s Serafina to name but four recent examples, the fiction of Melvyn Burgess and Frank Cottrell Boyce and Frances Hardinge and wonderful Margo Lanagan. As with science fiction itself, the list is extensive.

Nor is it correct to assume that YA will ‘never’ be rewarded or even acknowledged by the likes of the Booker. YA is already making its way on to the shortlists of the major ‘adult’ speculative fiction prizes – see Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men in 2011, Rachel Hartman’s Serafina earlier this year. Jenni Fagan’s YA-friendly The Panopticon, also a finalist for this year’s Kitschies, has been widely praised in the literary mainstream and Fagan was herself named as one of 2013’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists. There was plenty of discussion, both before and after it won the Clarke Award in 2012, as to whether Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb should be classified as YA – and yes, there it was on the Booker longlist. These books have been recognised by prize juries because they are good books – that is, demonstrating significant accomplishment in terms of style, use of language and literary form. Whether they are YA or not (or SF or not, or crime or not) is of secondary importance.

Adam complains that the Booker never rewards ‘primitive’ art. I’m not sure if he’s wanting to categorise the whole of SF as primitive art along with mass market YA – I know I wouldn’t (just read Light) – but the central question here is: do we want it to? What could possibly be gained by a panel of Booker Prize judges deciding to give the nod to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? This surely is not what the Booker – or the Clarke, come to that – is for. The way mass consumables work in the marketplace should never be confused with what literature does, which is to be sceptical, to question, to call to arms, to stretch the imagination and the intellect, to further the possibilities of what printed words on a piece of paper can accomplish. One could argue, perhaps rightly, that reaching a lot of people is in and of itself a significant literary achievement. But The Daily Mail reaches a lot of people and I don’t see Adam arguing that the Mail – that most perniciously conservative of daily rags – should be held up as an icon of the zeitgeist.

The task of literature – and that includes our YA literature – is not to reflect mass trends, but to buck them. The task of the Booker Prize, surely – and of the Clarke, and the Kitschies – is to recognise writers who are genuinely striving to do that.

Nina’s Crime Blog #3

The Kills, by Richard House (2013)

We’re still only in September, and I have The Luminaries and The Goldfinch still to read, but I am going to be pretty gobsmacked if anything supersedes The Kills as my book of the year.

Book 1: Sutler

“Although no one has seen him they have managed to bump into him twice? That is quite a coincidence. Mr Parson, how is your knowledge of the American Civil War?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Do you read historical fiction? Have you heard of a sutler? It’s a military term.” Bastian’s face pinched with a teacher’s concentration. “A sutler is someone who follows the military, they sell provisions, clothes, uniforms, food…”

“I’m sorry?”

“Sutler. Sutler. S.U.T.L.E.R. It’s from the Dutch. It means someone who does the dirty work.” (pp171-2)

We follow a fugitive from the Iraqi desert to Grenoble, where he disappears again, perhaps forever. A huge amount of money has gone missing. A man calling himself Stephen Lawrence Sutler is the obvious suspect, but who is playing him, and to what purpose? A team of film makers who encounter Sutler in Turkey become entangled in his affairs with disastrous repercussions for them all.

Book 2: The Massive

Even now the work bothers him in ways he can’t describe. Too much junk, too much dust, broken concrete, stuffed shopping bags, too much crap to properly know what’s being hidden. These buildings, he shakes his head. They clear them out, knock them down, and then build these superhighways right through them. A superhighway crashing right through some mediaeval sunscorched slum. (p283)

In a direct prequel to the events of Book 1, we meet the men of Camp Liberty. Rem Gunnersen’s hand-picked team of security and ex-servicemen have been charged with disposing of the vast acreages of dangerous garbage that is the ultimate undisclosed product of the Iraq war. The money is good, and they’re removed from the more obvious perils of the combat zone, but as the men gradually discover more about the dangers of the work they are engaged in, and the identity of the person who put them in their situation, relations between them begin to unravel. Meanwhile, at home in the States, Cathy Gunnersen begins an investigation of her own.

Book 3: The Kill

OK, there was the whole absurdity of it, obviously, it’s a crazy idea, but an appealing idea also, who doesn’t like the idea of two men, tourists, who kill, and take their instructions from a pulp novel. The very randomness of it. They come and go, and no one is ever caught – it’s morbidly satisfying, knowing you’ll never know. (p700)

Back in Book 1, a certain recent bestseller is passed around between various characters, a novel depicting a true crime investigation into a case whereby the author of a popular crime novel has disappeared in circumstances similar to those described in his own fiction. The novel is set in Naples, as is the fictional factual story that supposedly inspired it. It’s meant to be bad luck to say the title aloud. The person who originally owned the book in Book 1 has already disappeared.

Book 4: The Hit

“There was a murder.” The word was too ridiculous, spoken out in the sunlight, stupidly implausible. She can’t quite believe it, but doesn’t know what it would take to make such an event credible. Falling buildings, burning planes, deserts on fire, more plausible because of the scale. “They never found the victim.” (p891)

And in Book 4, the events of the novel that is Book 3 appear to be playing themselves out again, this time for real, in a different place and time and with a new cast of characters. Or is someone simply playing games with an urban myth? Some key characters from Book 1 reappear, still on the trail of Sutler, but there are now three Sutlers instead of just the one. We pick up their stories eagerly – but are we ever going to get the answers we’ve been looking for?

In her excellent recent review of Helene Wecker’s novel The Golem and the Jinni for Strange Horizons, Abigail Nussbaum makes reference to an article written for The Guardian by novelist Edward Docx in which he posits the over-familiar argument that novels employing genre materials will automatically prove inferior to the mainstream:

“It’s worth dealing with the difference again, since everyone seems to have forgotten it or become chary of the articulation. Mainly this: that even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material. That’s the way writing works and lots of people who don’t write novels don’t seem to get this: if you need a detective, if you need your hero to shoot the badass CIA chief, if you need faux-feminist shopping jokes, then great; but the correlative of these decisions is a curtailment in other areas. If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.”

This argument is a nonsense based on a fallacy, namely the idea that a novel featuring an honest cop and a corrupt CIA chief, for example, must by its very nature find itself constrained within well-worn genre stereotypes, whereas a novel featuring a group of university students say, or TV execs wife-swapping in Hampstead, or a journalist facing dismissal because of phone hacking, will by its very nature offer a more rounded and psychologically realistic portrait of human interaction. It goes without saying that by-the-numbers fiction exists in all corners of the literary landscape – but to suggest that certain character or subject choices are intrinsically more prone to cliche or repetition or just plain bad writing has to be a false conceit. Either all writing exists on a level playing field – i.e, the success, failure, originality or otherwise of any given narrative is down to the skill and imagination of the writer, rather than the subject area in which he or she operates – or none of it does.

It would seem to me that the genre wars, as Nussbaum dubs them in her article, continue unchecked precisely because of a failure by both sides to acknowledge the simple and self evident fact that the use or non-use of speculative or thriller elements is in and of itself not a determining factor of literary quality.

It doesn’t help Docx’s cause that in spite what he says in the paragraph quoted above,  much of his argument is based around the sub-standard output of hack writers such as Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson and Lee Child. (Child has to be one of the worst prose ‘stylists’ working today. I wish to God someone would call his bluff on that boast of his that he could write a creditable literary novel in three weeks – the results would make for grand entertainment indeed.) Docx is also seen to perform that neat trick so beloved of mainstream critics in hastily claiming those speculative or crime novels that disprove his argument (in this case Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) for the literary mainstream. Thus critics like Docx bang on incessantly about the poor literary quality of works by Heinlein, Asimov, Campbell and Clarke, whilst insisting that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Ballard’s Crash, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kuzuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go aren’t actually SF at all because they’re too well written. This kind of double standard is not just tiresome, it’s ridiculous.

I have a lot of sympathy with Docx’s frustration over the general crapness of much commercial fiction, but his lordly pronouncements on speculative fiction per se seem to be based far more around personal prejudice than on logic. Fyodor Dostoevsky proved again and again that a real writer can do anything he damn well likes with a basic thriller plot. Margaret Atwood, Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Carol Oates, Christopher Priest, Mike Harrison, Michael Swanwick and James Ellroy have all used genre materials to create literary masterpieces, and I could easily name dozens more who have done likewise. But for now I’m going to concentrate on naming Richard House.

Because House’s thriller-in-four-thrillers The Kills is a literary masterpiece. No amount of summarizing could adequately convey the power, complexity, literary elegance, and intellectual reach of this remarkable book. House has openly stated his admiration for Bolano’s great novel-in-five-novels, 2666 – a tough act to follow for anyone, but with The Kills, House has produced a work that is consummately worthy of its inspiration.

One of the things I dislike most about commercial thrillers is the way character motivation is so often twisted to fit the plot – characters do things not because they really would, but because the author needs them to. Nothing feels real, and because nothing feels real, nothing matters. The events that drive The Kills are strange, dark, frightening and mysterious – but not one thing that happens feels false, trite, predictable or unlikely. The plot – or should I say plots – seem to unfold with a flawless and inexorable logic from actions and decisions taken by characters who at every point in the story feel wholly three dimensional and real.

And this book is genuinely thrilling. As you might expect with a novel of this length (for those who don’t already know it’s 1,000 pages) its complexities take time to unfold and there is work to be done by the reader. You must come prepared to immerse yourself in this narrative, to devote yourself to it mentally for the time it takes you to read it. There will be moments of discomfiture – especially at the beginning – while you try to work out exactly where House is taking you, and for what purpose. But that is part of the joy of this book, and believe me when I tell you that every ounce of effort you put in will be repaid. There were moments in all four of the books when the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood on end as my eyes were opened to some new revelation or resonance, where I found myself racing through the pages, the pleasures of the prose now coming secondary to the simple and urgent need to know what was going to happen. This novel is long, but only exactly as long as it needs to be. I read a fascinating interview with Eleanor Catton at the weekend in which she compared long novels with DVD box sets in the way they offer the possibility of longer and more complex story arcs, of stories within stories and properly realised subplots. This is certainly true of The Kills. There are a lot of words here, but not one of them feels superfluous to requirements.

In matters of form, the book is a significant accomplishment. The four books are not so much linked together as enfolded in one another like origami. Resonances between them abound – not just going forward, but looking backward also. Even yesterday as I finished the book, I found myself cheering ‘oh YES!’ to a suddenly obvious parallel between Books 3 and 1 that I hadn’t noticed at all until that moment. There is a metafictional layering of narrative that – like the film of the book of the book in Books 1, 3 and 4 – results in what I can only describe as a millefeuille of storytelling, simultaneously singular and plural. In his review for The Telegraph, Jake Kerridge compares The Kills to ‘a dance that has been minutely choreographed’, a simile that feels particularly apt.

Kerridge’s favourite of the four Books would appear to be Book 2, The Massive, and if I were pushed to name my own favourite I think I might be inclined to agree with him. This damning indictment of Western actions in Iraq, the ignorance and greed that lay at the heart of the push towards so-called regime change and the thousand-and-one cock-ups in the wake of that, has the strength of purpose of the best kind of investigative journalism, with all the twists and turns (and horrific pay-offs) of a five-star political thriller. At the same time it is a deeply, deeply affecting literary novel about people. I’ll never forget Gunnersen’s men and I’ll never forget Cathy Gunnersen either. The Massive is less circuitous, less complex as narrative than the other three Books – its complexity lies in the way it interacts with the other novels – but this is perhaps where its strength resides. As a piece of political fiction it is a must-read. The Massive is an important book in its own right, by any standards.

It’s no surprise that much of the commentary on The Kills has tended to focus on the form it takes. But I wouldn’t want to end this review without talking about the novel’s language, which to me feels sublimely fit for purpose and in many, many places simply sublime. There isn’t a single bad sentence in The Kills. The novel’s pared-down, factualizing and dispassionate style has a documentary quality, a purity and a deceptive simplicity that is beauty in its most refined state, a kind of literary invisibility that had me in envy of this author’s brilliance on every page. That House loves words, the English language and the act of trasmitting thought and emotion through the act of writing is everywhere, everywhere in this novel, and I would like to close with a passage that, for me, summarizes not only The Kills itself, but the state of being a writer:

And this was gone. The precise description of the decor along a mantelpiece, Krawiec’s mother’s house, the petiteness of it, sullen and ordinary, of Lvov at night, how capsule-like the city seemed, of the people seated facing the windows at the respite home in Lvov, the women on buses, the silent trains and trams. Everything lost: the airport and how coming into it pitched through a layer of fog – fog so you knew you were in the heart of Eastern Europe, right on the edge of another period entirely – how this worked as an image of what he would and would not find – coming through fog, OK, not great, but apt. The petrochemical works, the roadways, the fields and fields shaved of produce, and the intensity of it all, that one man could come from this flat monochrome to a city so bumpy and opposite and butcher two people. (p714 – and don’t be deceived by that line about Krawiec butchering two people – like everything in The Kills, it doesn’t turn out the way you think it will… )

I was hoping to have this piece written and posted before the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist this morning, but events, as they say, intervened, and the list was actually revealed about an hour ago, while I was still buggering about trying to get this finished. I’m not going to comment on the Booker shortlist at the moment, except to say that I feel devastated for House that The Kills isn’t on it. This doesn’t entirely surprise me – I said in an email to a friend recently that I doubted the judges would have the courage to include it (because of its length, because it’s a crime novel, because, because because) – but it does seem to me to be a criminal oversight. The Kills is a major novel, a major thriller, a major contribution to literature. I would urge you to read it.

Strange Horizons fund drive

Just a quick call-out to remind everyone that the Strange Horizons annual fund drive is currently underway and every pound/dollar counts!

It’s no secret that I consider SH to be one of the most important and progressive speculative fiction zines out there. I’m proud to write for it, always eager to read the latest issue, and would encourage anyone who feels they can to support the magazine’s continued existence by making a donation.

SH’s strength as a zine lies in the spread of knowledge, diversity of opinion and passionate commitment of its contributors. Everyone who writes for the magazine, whether as a reviewer or as a columnist or as a fiction writer (sometimes all three) does so out of a desire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about speculative fiction, to proselytise, to criticise, to empathise – and sometimes all three. Strange Horizons is not your passive, stay-at-home kind of zine. Above all, and in whatever guise, there is active engagement.

With every week bringing some new highlight, it’s difficult and unfair to pick favourites. But for anyone new to Strange Horizons and looking to find examples of just why it’s so special, I’d urge them to have a read of Abigail Nussbaum’s recent review of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Abigail offers a fine deconstruction of the text (she’s one of the best) but she doesn’t stop there. Her examination in this article of what exactly fantastic fiction is for and how far it can hope to succeed in literary terms is an articulate and incisive contribution to what should be the most important argument in SF today. I admired and loved this piece when I first read it, and it has stayed with me. I hope to return to some of the points it raises on this blog in due course.

Every instalment of John Clute’s Scores column is a privilege to read, and I sincerely hope fantastika knows how lucky it is to have him. I don’t mind what Clute writes about – I just love wallowing in his mastery of the English language. His dissection of the Great American Horror novel, and Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere in particular, has been a recent favourite.

And for SH fiction, I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone to seek out what must be among my favourite short stories of 2013, Sofia Samatar’s ‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’, published in Strange Horizons way back in January. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now. If you read it at the time, reread it. Stories published in the first quarter of any given year often lose out when it comes to awards nominations, simply because it can be difficult to remember which year they appeared in and whether they are eligible. Sofia’s story is eligible for all next year’s ballots, and if I had my way it would appear on every single one of them! It’s beautifully written, perfectly structured, witty, sardonic, gorgeous – and I totally loved it.

Fairy Skulls and Lightspeed

I’m very happy to announce the publication of my story ‘Fairy Skulls’ in LCRW #29, now shipping.

Edited by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link for Small Beer Press, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet has to be one of the most innovative speculative fiction zines out there, and I’m incredibly proud to be joining a roster of writers that includes Carol Emshwiller, Ted Chiang, Karen Russell, Ursula Le Guin, Will Mackintosh and Christopher Barzak.

I honestly can’t remember now where I came by the original inspiration for ‘Fairy Skulls’, other than that we were driving through a particularly beautiful part of Kent and I suddenly found myself thinking: ‘yeah, this is exactly where a bunch of people-hating fair folk would live.’ What I do know though is that I absolutely loved writing it – it’s a fun one. I don’t do those very often, so enjoy.

While I’m here, I can also tell you that my 2007 Aeon Award-winning story ‘Angelus’ is now available to read in the September issue of Lightspeed magazine, Issue #40. It was nice to revisit this story, give it a little polish – and discover that I still like it rather a lot. The magazine also features an Author Spotlight with Kevin McNeil in which he poses interesting questions about the links between ‘Angelus’, ‘Flying in the Face of God’ and ‘Stardust’, and I attempt to answer them the best I can.

Oh, and for those of you wondering how the kittens are getting on, here’s their latest photo call. Camera flirts.