Monthly Archives: January 2014

Here we go again…

So – the full list of novels submitted for the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award was released, via SFX magazine, at 2pm today. Numbering 121 books in total, it clocks up a record number. With both the Kitschies and the Clarke receiving increasing numbers of submissions year on year, this would seem to signal a growing awareness of and enthusiasm for these awards specifically and for speculative fiction in general both within the literary community and among the public at large. This can only be a good thing. It is even better that the diversity of submissions is also increasing, with more translations, edge-of-genre novels and experiments in form appearing alongside the usual core SF suspects.  It is through the promotion, evaluation and celebration of such books that SF evolves. The Clarke exists precisely to encourage and facilitate this process.

There’s some great stuff on the subs list this year. By my first reckoning, I’d say there were more active contenders – by that I mean novels that are genuinely shortlist-worthy – than there were last year. This again is to be applauded. There are a good many equally possible, equally interesting shortlists hiding among those 121 submissions, and I have no doubt that if we had four sets of judges, say, working the list instead of just the one, we’d end up with four completely different shortlist picks and sets of emphases. That is both the beauty and the danger of the Clarke – there is no objectively perfect shortlist, just as there is no objectively perfect definition of what might constitute the year’s best science fiction novel. The shortlist that will be revealed to us in six weeks’ time will not be definitive, it will be a snapshot. Like all snapshots, it will illuminate but one moment, from a particular angle. It will tell part of the story but not all of it. No single snapshot ever can.

And that is part of why we love the Clarke so much.

I’ve had my usual fun with the list, which I’ll share with you here. Need I add that I have not read all of the books, nor even a goodly proportion of them. My thoughts and opinions are the product of research, sample-reading, reviews by sources I trust, and unabashed personal bias. Taking all that into consideration, here we go…

Firstly, my pick of six books that don’t have a prayer of getting on the actual shortlist, but should, absolutely, have been considered:

Andrew Crumey – The Secret Knowledge. Crumey is one of my favourite writers, full stop. Was his wonderful Sputnik Caledonia submitted for the Clarke back in 2008, I wonder? This guy is just a superb writer and criminally under-exposed.

Dave Eggers – The Circle. This is Eggers’s near-near future satire on the vast, corporate powerbases of our ever-expanding internet companies. The preview makes it irresistible and I’m eager to read the whole thing.

Adrian Hon – A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Oh, please let this be on the actual shortlist! A science fictional riff on the idea of that coffee table bestseller from a couple of years back, The History of the World in 100 Objects, Hon’s book is an edge-of-novel experiment in form that I find genuinely inspiring.

Andrei Kurkov – The Gardener from Ochakov. Kurkov is a wonderful writer, who uses speculative elements naturally and effortlessly as an integral portion of his stories. His writing is also extremely funny, as only sardonically aware, post-Soviet writing can be.

Robert J. Lennon – Familiar. I loved this so much I read Lennon’s previous novel, Castle, straight afterwards and loved that too. Wish I’d written this one myself.

Wu Ming-Yi – The Man with the Compound Eyes. I’ve read great chunks of this while standing in Waterstone’s and loved the mood of it, the texture, the imagery, the poetical weirdness. Eager to read the whole thing asap.

Shortlist I think the judges should pick (this is less obstinately esoteric than the one above, a genuinely plausible Clarke shortlist that would give the excellent Kitschies Red Tentacle a run for its money):

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam. I’ve got big issues with the Oryx and Crake series (the Crakers, mainly), but the quality of Atwood’s writing means she absolutely deserves a place at the table, and should be awarded one.

Ionna Bourazopoulou – What Lot’s Wife Saw. Several people whose opinions I value have been recommending this. I’ve read the preview and liked it a lot. Intriguing, independent, innovative science fiction.

Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being. I’ve just started reading this and am rapidly falling in love with it. This pick should be a no-brainer.

Christopher Priest – The Adjacent. Chris is one of the only writers producing ‘real’ SF as loved and accepted by core genre fans who could also hold his own on any Booker shortlist. This is a magnificent book, showcasing innovative ideas in terms of both subject matter and form. It would be madness to exclude it.

James Smythe – The Machine. I loved this book. One of my personal year’s best, in fact. It’s beautifully written, with never a sore sentence. Also, I just couldn’t put it down. Near future British SF of the finest calibre.

Marcel Theroux – Strange Bodies. Again, I’ve seen people I trust loving this, and I loved the preview. If this makes the shortlist I’ll definitely be reading it next.

Shortlist I think the judges might settle for (it’s safer than the above, more trad, and therefore much less interesting):

Stephen Baxter – Proxima. I’ve not read this, but I have given it as a Christmas present to someone who’s crazy about core SF. People are saying it’s Baxter’s best book in ages.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice. Otherwise known as the steamroller. It seems to appeal across a wide sector of fandom. It’s the people’s choice.

Stephanie Saulter – Gemsigns. A well-received debut, classic dystopian tropes.

James Smythe – The Machine. With any luck, The Machine will manage to steal the soul of any jury, because it has everything.

Lavie Tidhar – The Violent Century. I have issues with this book, mainly because I’m just not a fan of superheroes. But Tidhar writes with flair and from the gut, always with serious intent. The general consensus is positive. I reckon it’s a cert.

Paul McAuley – Evening’s Empires. Paul Kincaid rates this as almost the equal of its series precursor The Quiet War. McAuley is one of our most articulate and intelligent writers of core genre. I have the feeling it would be a popular choice.

NB: All other things being equal, I would have named Kameron Hurley’s God’s War as a shoo-in for this shortlist, but I reckon its prior publication in the US will have counted against it. There’s a feeling that this book has been around for some time, and its impact on the judges will have been lessened as a result.

Six interesting outliers:

Pippa Goldschmidt – The Falling Sky. I really enjoyed this. It’s beautifully written, sensitive, as well as being a fascinating insight into the working life of an astronomer. The speculative element is very slight, though.

Matt Hill – The Folded Man. I love this book. In a just world, it should be shortlisted. I just have the feeling the judges might look askance at its radical interpretation of what SF can be.

Charlie Human – Apocalypse Now Now. Again, I started reading this in Waterstone’s while I was looking for Christmas presents and it’s insane but I found myself enjoying it immediately. It’s witty and it’s fun. I can see this being optioned for a movie.

Robin Sloan – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Easily my favourite from the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (debut novel) shortlist.

M. Suddain – Theatre of the Gods. This is massively overwritten but I couldn’t help admiring its madness. Sure evidence of an original and gifted writer at work.

Tony White – Shackleton’s Man Goes South. I’ve not read the whole of this yet, but I love the combination of documentary history and near-future SF. There are ideas here I’d like to work with myself.

Well, that’s my take on things. Now that’s over and done with I can sit back and look forward to reading other people’s predictions, meditations, and machinations. Let’s have some good rants, please!

As in any year, the most exciting thing about the Clarke is that anything could happen. I’m already itching to see the actual shortlist, to be revealed, so I believe, on March 18th. In the meantime, here’s to the judges – may their choices be wise ones.

Shortlisted!

I’m delighted to announce that my novella Spin has made this year’s BSFA shortlist, in the Short Fiction category.

I’d like to thank everyone who voted for Spin in the nominations round. It’s a work that’s very close to my heart, and it really is massively gratifying to know that people are reading and enjoying it.

Congratulations to all the other nominees, not least my better half, for his hugely deserved shortlisting in the novel category for The Adjacent.

You can find full details of all three shortlists at the BSFA site here.

Now that’s what I call tentacular

We were up in town yesterday, having lunch with colleagues and then taking part in the launch event at Blackwell’s for Simon Ings’s new novel Wolves (of which more here soon). Just before we left the house, I happened to see a discussion online (I forget precisely where now) about Hugo outliers, i.e those works that, in a saner world, should receive a strew of nominations but inevitably won’t. Someone mentioned Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. As his Satantango is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages now but still haven’t got round to, my attention was immediately engaged and I popped across to have a look at the Amazon preview.

It seems that Krasznahorkai could not survive without the semicolon. The first sentence of Seiobo There Below runs on, like the river it describes, for two-and-a-half pages. From the first words (“Everything around it moves, as if this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles,) one finds oneself immersed in beauty, in mystery, in the presence of a master.

How much more terrifying life would be if there were not those of us climbing mountains, working to send people to Mars, fighting to save the snow leopard, playing music by James MacMillan and writing sentences like Laszlo Krasznahorkhai.

I was impatient to hear word of the Kitschies shortlists before we caught the train. I needn’t have worried – a mass email brought the news to us as we travelled. My excitement at the Red Tentacle shortlist has still not subsided:

  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door

Here at last is the kind of shortlist that one might dream of for SF, a shortlist for a genre prize (‘to reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic’) that offers a true indication of the power, depth and literary excellence of which speculative fiction is capable and for which it should strive. In its breadth of styles, its acuity of vision, its strength of purpose, this shortlist is easily the equal of last year’s (really pretty good) Booker shortlist and (I would argue) then some. These are the kind of novels SF should be discussing and promoting for itself and arguing over, that remind any that need reminding that literature is a vocation, a life’s project, not just an escapist pastime or the product of vociferous marketing.

Any set of individuals with the nous and ambition to shortlist Anne Carson might equally have selected a writer like Krasznahorkai. These are clearly people with an unbounded understanding of what SF is and how far it can go. Well done those judges. Congratulations on what you are saying about speculative fiction.

This has been the most exciting, progressive and imaginative Kitschies shortlist yet. I am predicting it will give the Clarke more than a decent run for its money. Let us hope, for the sake of the Clarke, that it doesn’t beat it bloodily into the ground…

Court Green/Women in SF #2

We’ve just come back from a week in the West Country, where we visited, among other places, the village of North Tawton, whose adopted son Ted Hughes is celebrated and commemorated with a blue plaque at the village centre.

Court Green is the beautiful old farmhouse he first purchased in 1961, together with the poet he was then married to, Sylvia Plath. The house has tremendous presence. One can only imagine that it has a long memory also.

We returned home – after almost a week of blissfully internet-free days – to discover that ‘Part One’ of this year’s submissions for the Clarke Award had been published over at the ACCA site. This consists of 33 novels, all the submissions that happen to be by women. The announcment led in turn to this rather predictable and variously inaccurate piece by David Barnett at The Guardian’s books blog. Barnett refers to ‘last year’s kerfuffle’ over an all-male shortlist, the award supposedly ‘dogged by controversy’. Well, as someone who studied last year’s subs list pretty obsessively and judged only two or three of the very few submitted works by women as active contenders, I think the selection of an all-male shortlist might be described as almost inevitable rather than surprising or controversial. It was certainly not the fault of the award or the judges. At least part of the problem, as 2013 judge Liz Williams articulated at the time, would appear to lie somewhere deep within the attitudes and selection processes of contemporary UK publishing. I might point to plainly visible examples of this – how can a novelist of Tricia Sullivan’s calibre not be currently under contract, for instance? – or to behind-the-scenes stonewalling – I personally know of several extremely talented women writers who have either taken years to find a publisher or who have been actively discouraged from using speculative themes in their writing. These are the problems we need to be outing. Plus, would it really have been so hard for The Guardian to have asked a woman to write about this issue on their blog?? Oh, irony. Most of the discussion I’ve seen online about the women-first submissions announcement has been from men…

I see what Clarke are trying to do, and OK, but the only effect it seems to be having is to leave everyone shuffling around looking a bit embarrassed, waiting for the rest of the subs to be announced so they can have a proper discussion about the potential shortlist. I don’t know. Perhaps someone thought we wouldn’t notice the women if they were mixed in among all those men.

The good news here is that one could easily make up a very fine shortlist from the 33 submissions announced so far. Which has got to be a great thing, no matter what one thinks of this particular little Clarke-experiment.

On the allied and similarly vexed subject of awards eligibility posts, I also found this forthright and eloquent post by Martin Lewis.

Yes, publishing is an industry but literature is an art. From my perspective, speculative fiction increasingly seems to be losing sight of this and we are moving to a situation where reviews and awards are viewed simply as publicity material. Worse, at any sign of push back to this cultural shift, authors play the victim. Slowly it is becoming the new norm for readers and authors alike… I find it very sad. I don’t want to live in a world where books are the same as toothbrushes and readers are just consumers. I want awards to be about readers recognising and discussing exceptional work.

Amen to that.

Women in SF #1

As well as continuing with my occasional crime blog (next up, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me) I intend to run an irregular series of posts throughout 2014 on Women in SF. I want to kick off by talking just a little bit about Joanna Kavenna’s 2010 novel The Birth of Love, an exquisitely written four-stranded narrative that has a strong science fictional element within the text itself but more importantly – and this is always a key thing for me – whose overall effect is speculative, through its author’s willingness to experiment with form, and with ideas.

In spite of her being named as one of 2013’s Best of Young British Novelists, Kavenna is not nearly so well known as she should be. Her prose is unshowy and concise, direct and often forthright. It is also some of the most seamlessly well crafted and elegant prose I’ve encountered in ages. There is no attempt at gimmickry or what Chris always refers to as ‘funny voices’. Reading her, you come away with the inescapable conclusion that Kavenna has shared the information, the ideas, the emotions that were most on her mind at the time of writing, and the word ‘shared’ is important here, because that’s how intimate and intense the Kavenna reading experience feels.

This is a writer who was born to write. I’ve been drawing real inspiration from her clear aversion to anything resembling ‘rules’ in writing – she’s not afraid to expound ideas, to chart her thinking process, to let the novel take the form it needs to take. I have the feeling there’s a stubbornness behind the elegance, and that gives me great pleasure.

The first of the four narrative strands in The Birth of Love deals with the story of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century physician who changed the face of obstetrics and indirectly saved the lives of millions of women. We also meet Brigid, a woman in her forties about to give birth to her second child in the year 2009, Prisoner 730004, a reluctant political dissident in the year 2153, and Michael Stone, a middle-aged writer who lives across town from Brigid and whose debut novel The Moon is based around the life of Dr Semmelweis. When we first meet Michael, he’s being dragged along to a ‘celebratory’ literary lunch by his agent Sally, who is at pains to impress upon him how difficult it will be for an ‘unpalatable’ writer such as himself to find a wide audience:

“Men are unlikely to read a book about childbirth. It’s unfortunate, but there’s not much to be done. Women might just, but they’ll get put off by your obscure doctor. And the title, too – the title is rather awkward” But he didn’t want to change the title. “It sounds like a dreary symbolist novel,” said Sally. “And this rambling narrator, who seems mad himself. It’s as if you want to talk about everything, in one book. You can’t talk about everything in one book. It’s boring and it bores the reader.” (p103)

Reading this, you can only suppose that Kavenna is drawing heavily upon her own experience of such depressing – and depressingly common – encounters between writers and the literary infrastructure that purports to support them. This chapter is very funny but it’s awful too – and Michael’s fumbling yet passionate defence of his work is in a weird kind of way a hero’s solliloquy:

“I was trying to write about conviction…” – and the table nodded – “… about those who propose something that is not generally thought, and how they are dealt with. About those who are convinced of what they say, to the point that they continue to speak, even when everyone has turned away. And I thought that… all things being unknowable, all real things, all real mysteries, then…well, who can stand, really, and say: ‘I know: I understand’! I wanted to write… something about this… impulse… to tell others what is true.” (p99)

This ‘impulse to tell others what is true’ is what lies at the heart of all serious fiction, the idea that is served by all four narrative strands of Kavenna’s novel and that forms its core.

In Brigid’s strand of The Birth of Love, we observe her young son Calumn learning to speak, as we all must speak out to preserve our integrity, as every writer must struggle to express themselves in creating true work.

SF should welcome Kavenna’s interest in speculative themes with upraised hands and shouts of joy. She is so exactly the kind of writer we want and need on-side.

What I’ve been doing this week

Chucking stuff on to a skip, mainly. For reasons that doubtless seemed sensible at the time, we decided that Christmas and New Year would present the perfect opportunity to renovate Chris’s office. Consequently we’ve been hauling books and sifting clutter, some of which hasn’t been moved or examined for twenty years. It’s been a week. Results have been pleasing, though, and continue to be so. Of course it has played havoc with both our writing schedules,  but we’re both making progress, nonetheless. I had what I feel to be a major breakthrough with the new book at the weekend. Things are finally moving.

While I’m here, may I remind all BSFA members that nominations for the BSFA Awards close this coming Tuesday, January 14th, so get over to the BSFA site now and place some more nominations! The noms-list-so-far has thrown up some interesting titles as always, so if you’re seeking inspiration/some timely memory-jogging for what to nominate, it’s well worth a look. Do remember though that it’s the number of nominations that count – seeing your preferred novel, story, piece of artwork or non-fiction already on that list does not make it safe. With such a diversity of works in the running, every nomination really does count.

And awards-wise, this is just the beginning. Nominations for the Hugos have now opened, which means I’ll have to start jotting down ideas for my ballot, well, now, really. I’m hoping that plenty of people will get in there before me and post their ballots and recommendations online. Some of those lists are invaluable – especially when it comes to the curse of the novelette…

Oh, and shouldn’t we be seeing the annual list of Clarke submissions posted up any time now? If the rumours are true, the numbers are up from last year and the quality higher than ever. And to think we’re less than two weeks into 2014.