Monthly Archives: February 2014

SpecFic 2013

I’m very chuffed indeed to announce that I have a piece in the forthcoming Speculative Fiction 2013, an anthology bringing together the best SF essays, reviews and comment published online during 2013. Edited by the wonderful Ana Grilo and Thea James of The Book Smugglers, you can read the full (and awesome) list of contributors here.

It’s fashionable to criticise the new ‘democracy of self expression’ for the trivial arguments, poor writing and total bollocks that inevitably get spewed forth by the truckload on an hourly basis. The great thing about that though is that all you have to do to get rid of it is close the tab, and no amount of nonsense negates the fact that one of the finest aspects of internet fandom is the way it is allowing new writers, bloggers, critics and reviewers to develop their voices. Even in the few years I’ve been active online myself, I’ve seen an increase in the quality, robustness and diversity of debate in and around SF and I find that very exciting. This kind of ongoing online conversation between readers, writers and fans simply does not exist in the same way in the world of mainstream literature – just one more thing that makes SF such a unique and stimulating field to be working in.

As someone who very much enjoys the theory-and-criticism side of SF (a good argument, in other words) I feel honoured to be a part of this anthology.

Complications makes the GPI shortlist!

I’m particularly excited to announce that the French edition of The Silver Wind, Complications, has been shortlisted for France’s best known award for speculative fiction, the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire.

The GPI has been running since 1974, and introduced categories for works in translation in the 1990s. There have been some illustrious winners over the years. You might call the GPI the ‘French Clarke’ – except the GPI goes a mite further than the Clarke Award in offering award categories for Best Short Fiction and Best YA along with the Best Novel category. The GPI also honours manga, graphic novels and essays.

The short fiction category is open to both individual stories and whole collections. I’m thrilled to see Complications shortlisted alongside works by Ken Liu, Al Reynolds and Ian McDonald among others.

My amazing translator, Bernard Sigaud, is also shortlisted for his work on Complications for the Prix Jacques Chambon, the category of the GPI specifically dedicated to highlighting the work of translators. I’m delighted for him, and also for my publishers, Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot at Editions Tristram, who have put so much passion, energy and expertise into bringing Complications to a wider audience.

You can see details of all the GPI shortlists at the award’s official website here.

Women in SF #3

Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

On a forgotten day some time between two hundred and three hundred years ago, the musician Juliana Cataveiro pulled her daughter’s limp body from a street flooded with the South Atlantic and carried her home through a hurricane. The storms raged for three days. During that time, Juliana sat in the attic of her home with her daughter and sang to her. On the first day, the South Atlantic plucked things from houses and bore them down the streets in strange, floating processions. On the second day, the wind took the roof off Juliana’s house. She dared it to take the body of her child and it did not. The child turned blue and cold. When the rain ceased and the sea fell flat and glimmered as if it had never stirred, never mind drowned souls in their hundreds, Juliana Cataveiro burned her daughter, put the ashes in a tin and her guitar on her back and came south, which was the only way to go. (Cataveiro p107)

While it may be true that everybody has a book in them, what proves your mettle as a writer is how you handle that difficult second novel.

It’s often said of first novels that they rely too heavily on autobiography. You know the kind of thing – stories of teenage angst and dysfunctional families, misfit loners finding themselves in the big city and naive ingenues falling in with the wrong kind of company amidst the dreaming spires all remain popular subjects among debut novelists. There’s nothing wrong with these subjects per se – their very universality makes them readily accessible and often compelling. But with so many pre-existing novels in the same vein, it becomes increasingly difficult for the aspiring novelist to bring anything new or interesting to these timeworn themes.

The first-time SF novelist faces a similar obstacle to originality. While she may not draw so heavily on her own childhood and adolesence, she may find herself tempted – subconsciously or otherwise – to keep the books and stories she read and reread during those formative years too close to hand. It was these novels that inspired her to become a writer, after all. Who would not aspire to creating such magic? And so the derivative cycle of genre fiction continues.

The most positive attribute of E. J. Swift’s debut novel Osiris was undoubtedly the writing. The book possessed a stylistic assurance that takes many writers two or three novels to come close to mastering. Its finely tuned lyricism, gentle but persuasive, demonstrated that Swift is an author who takes her craft seriously and to whom language is of central importance. Reading Osiris, you were left in no doubt that you were in the presence of a sensitive artist at work, and certain scenes – the opening execution scene in particular – continued to resonate long after the story itself had been concluded.

For me though, the story itself had problems that became impossible to ignore. I’d read it all before, basically: spoiled little rich girl meets poor revolutionary boy and gradually becomes alive to the horrifying injustices inherent in the system that supports her. Girl goes against corrupt and decadent family to fight the system alongside boy. Regime is challenged, calamity ensues. An overcautious structure also results in a serious pacing issue – as information is needlessly repeated, any sense of urgency is lost. The end product winds up somewhat stodgy and a tadge overcooked.

Swift finished the manuscript of Osiris soon after completing an MA in Creative Writing. There was then a delay of some years while the author found first the right agent and then the right publisher – problems every writer gets to know about, sooner or later, but that inevitably result in some level of authorial dissociation. The writer moves on, tries new things, starts a new novel. By the time that first book comes out, there is every risk that it will feel like old material. In spite of admiring the novel’s ambition and being impressed by the Swift’s evident feel for language and imagery, I could never escape the sense that in terms of its overall concept, Osiris was not original enough to stand out from all the other, similar debuts that had gone before it.

Swift’s follow-up, Cataveiro, is a whole different story. In terms of its plot, those rather predictable black-and-white certainties are gone, replaced by a world of swarming ambiguities. The pacing issues have been solved, as the action flows effortlessly forward in a series of cleverly constructed intertwining stories. Osiris‘s jejune lovers make way for nuanced, individually defined characters whose motives and drives range over a broad canvas of possibilities. Most gratifying of all, the standard dystopian set-up has given way to a compellingly drawn post-collapse world that feels scorchingly real and virtually limitless in its horizons. This is a very human book, a boldly compassionate book, a novel bulging with important questions about our own world which cannot fail to engage the sympathy and imagination of the reader. I try to avoid the term worlduilding wherever possible, but I have to concede that I found the worldbuiding in Cataveiro to be a thing of great beauty: both robust and poetical and – that word again – enviably assured.

Cataveiro is cunningly conceived to work as a standalone. Although the action takes place shortly after the events of Osiris, you don’t need to have read Osiris to make sense of it. Defying the laws of trilogy, Swift has created a work that issues naturally from of the events of her first novel and yet dispenses with all but one of that novel’s main characters. There are no tedious recaps, no desperate striving for continuity. Instead there is a whole new story, with Osiris nestled within that story as an integral yet unobtrusive part.

Swift’s writing also shows increasing maturity. There is a tactile quality, a perfume, an innate sensitivity to Swift’s control of language that both echoes and builds upon everything that proved most satisfying in the first book. There are no dull sentences. Swift’s interest in her characters and her story shines throughout the novel’s entire length. There are passages in Cataveiro that approach radiance. There is nothing so gratifying as watching a talented writer begin to fulfil her promise, and such solid development from one book to the next is a pleasure to see. I have the feeling though that Swift is only beginning to flex her muscles here. Should she choose – and I’m sure she will – to experiment still further with form, to stretch the boundaries of the genre in which she works, to break entirely free of the particular set of reader expectations that trilogy-writing inevitably entails, then I think she could be not just very good but seriously brilliant.

Best Horror of the Year #6

I’m really very happy indeed to announce that my story ‘The Tiger’, originally published in Terror Tales of London (edited for Gray Friar by Paul Finch) will be reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume 6.

I’m very fond of ‘The Tiger’, which forms part of the loosely connected and still ongoing cycle of stories set in and around Lewisham in southeast London, and so it’s especially pleasing to see it finding a wider audience.

You can view the full ToC for BHoTY#6 here at SF Signal. As always, Ellen has selected a wonderfully varied and appetising (if that’s the right word) roster of stories. It’s thrilling to have ‘The Tiger’ in amongst them.

Wolves at our door

Dogmen have me surrounded. They yip and slaver, waving crude knock-off AKs, their bandoliers glittering in the Middle’s glass reflections of a red and bloated sun. The streets are swimming in their oil-black blood but still they mass, overcoming the city’s defences… The armies of the Augmented are already massing at the gates. The best we can do now is set the place to self-destruct, robbing them of their prize. If they seize control of the city and its weaponry, then there can be no hope for the human diaspora pouring from the gates. (Wolves p150)

The wolves in Simon Ings’s new novel Wolves are artificial constructs, figments of augmented reality that can be perceived only by those in possession of the most up-to-date digital hardware. They are also, more metaphorically, the forces of change, the barbarians at the gate, the overwriters of the physically real with the digitally invasive. They are the capitalist powers that seize ideas, like prey, and subvert them to their will. They are the demons of doubt that urge us to sell out our dreams.

The story of Wolves is narrated by Conrad, a guy in his forties who at the opening of the novel is just about to walk out of one life and into another. He’s been in a car accident, a traumatic experience for him, and one that leaves his girlfriend Mandy maimed for life. Her hands are sheared off at the wrists, and Conrad, realising only now that he has never truly loved her, sees in her ultra-sophisticated, (and to him) ultra-creepy prosthetic hands everything that has been going wrong with their relationship. Unable to confront his failure head on, he leaves Mandy without a word and heads north, seeking sanctuary with Michel, a childhood friend he has not seen in years. But there is a secret buried in Conrad’s past, and the renewal of his friendship with Michel is threatening to bring that secret to the surface. As matters complicate in Conrad’s present, the world he grew up in becomes increasingly subsumed in a future that is threatening to run out of control. In the age of augmented reality, is analogue actuality about to be permanently outmoded?

I am more or less exactly the same age as Simon Ings. Like him, I grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s. Like him, I am part of the final generation who will be able to say they experienced a childhood and adolescence that had no knowledge of the internet. By the time I left school, ‘A’ Levels in IT were just about becoming an option. Our school boasted two – yes, that’s two – computers. My brother lusted after a ZX Spectrum. I didn’t start using a computer regularly myself until I was 25. In a very real sense, this analogue world is still my world, the world of my groundwater memories and therefore the world that is the repository of my creative iconography. It is a world that certain friends of mine, people half my age, can barely comprehend.

In the world of Wolves, such facts are important. As SF readers and writers, we’re used to novels set in the future, books that extrapolate current technologies and either rebuild the world with them or run amok. We’re used to novels set in the queasy ambience of our present day – the continually birthing future, in other words – where we all share the ominous sense that anything could be about to happen and probably already is happening. What we’re less used to are novels that straddle that uneasy gap between the analogue past and the rapidly expanding digital future. If I were to name the salient feature of Wolves it would be precisely this, that it is that gap-bridger, a novel written from the mindset of one world whilst furiously trying to get to grips with the dawn of another.

The plot feels less important to this novel than its sense of place, its physical landscape, an anchor constantly threatening to be torn free. At its centre, both in actuality and as metaphor, is the river that runs through Conrad’s home town. Conrad’s childhood and young adulthood is shaped by the river in both good ways and bad, it teems with significance, yet by the end of the novel it has been subjugated and destroyed by what planners like to euphemise as forward progress. We see a force of nature trammelled, customised, sanitized, commodified. Such incidental and wholesale destruction of natural environments continues to be one of the most insidiously dangerous and under-documented desecrations inflicted upon this small island by governments driven by expediency and lethally unsustainable short-termism. The world of Wolves highlights such accumulating minor atrocities to powerful effect. Ings has described Wolves as a novel about the end of the world: what he shows us is not the atomic fire or meteor impact or mutant plague-type of catastrophe so beloved in the mansions of Hollywood, but a slow apocalypse, the inexorable concreting-over of everything that matters:

On the way back to Poppy’s house we detour by the river. Or we try to.

“Where is it?”

Though Michel knows the town better than I do, he is as shocked as I am by this change: “Fucked if I know.”

It’s not in flood. It’s not in spate. It’s not even here. It’s been paved over. Canalised. There is no millrace, and no bridge crossing the millrace, just a horseshoe of low stairs and a concrete ramp for prams and wheelchairs, and where the river used to be, a bicycle lane winds through landscaped parkland, and the underbrush and low trees that used to conceal the water have been cleared away and lime green exercise machines put in their place. It’s nothing like I remember. It’s devastating. In a way I can’t put into words, it’s almost the opposite of what I remember, and as we walk I can feel the memories of my youth begin to fizz and react in the solvent of this new real. I stare at my feet, afraid of how much of myself I am losing. (p210)

And where does Wolves sit, exactly, within the landscape of British SF? In an editor’s note to accompany the ARC (I don’t know if this personal endorsement has been carried over to the published text, but I think it would be a shame if it has not) Simon Spanton of Gollancz lays his own cards on the table:

This is a bleak but oh so powerful read. But other authors have created wonderful art from bleakness. Dare I saddle Simon with this comparison? Yes, why not. Wolves reminds me quite a lot of J. G. Ballard.

In his review for The Guardian, Toby Litt furthers the comparison, with the proviso that to describe Wolves simply as Ballardian would be to offer an incomplete analysis, citing precisely Ings’s skill as a ‘landscape artist – almost an SF Thomas Hardy’ in defence of his position:

…what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain. Ballard was never concerned about a sense of place.

Litt is absolutely right to talk about those scraggy edgelands, and might well have gone on to mention the fact that Wolves is a liminal novel not just in the literal sense, but also in terms of its relationship with science fiction. Wolves is a novel that inhabits the edge-of-genre, that infinite and flexible space between the soundly mimetic and the outright fantastic.

In its intimate relationship with the British landscape, its tense preoccupation with personal alienation and social change, Wolves is clearly related to and descended from the those texts that have been variously branded ‘miserabilist’ or ‘mundane SF’ (or more recently, by Adam Roberts in a review at his blog, ‘Glumpunk’) but that are arguably the true heirs to the British New Wave, the new New Wave, if you will, a kind of ultra-near-futurism that holds up a divining mirror to contemporary reality. We read Wolves and remember Christopher Kenworthy’s decaying Barrow-in-Furness in The Quality of Light, the stark weirdness of Nicholas Royle’s Counterparts, Joel Lane’s fury at Thatcher in From Blue to Black. But it is in its relationship with the new New Wave’s urtexts, M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life and the story collection The Ice Monkey, that Wolves displays its allegiance most clearly. Harrison’s influence on Ings in Wolves feels pervasive and persuasive, a guiding principle. If Ings’s previous novel, Dead Water, is an intricate fugue, Wolves is its freewheeling toccata, a novel rife with personal anger that reads like it needed to be written. I sense that this is a transitional work for Ings, a move towards a fiercer, less restrained aesthetic and all the more effective for that.

One of the greatest dangers faced by British science fiction following the decline of the New Wave has been its co-opting by the commercial mainstream, its commodification at the hands of a nervous publishing industry in rabid pursuit of the next sure thing. As Ings himself recounts in his striking and bravely candid short essay at upcoming4me The Story Behind Wolves, when he first presented his then-editor with the manuscript of his new novel, that editor was less than enthusiastic:

My editor at the time told me Wolves was not publishable. He went so far as to say that publishing it would spoil my reputation.

Gather half-a-dozen writers together in a bar and the chances are they’ll all have a story like this. It’s sometimes hard to escape the feeling that British SF has suffered from a lack of direction in recent decades, a diminution of commitment arising at least in part from a willingness – fostered by an over-cautious publishing environment – to actively embrace the iconography and language of generic ‘sci-fi’ and all its bankrupt armoury of creative exhaustion. In a climate like this, it’s easy to forget that SF has been and always should be the literature of change, of innovation, of higher imagining. It’s in novels like Wolves – and in the willingness of the braver segments of the publishing industry to nurture and sustain their writers – that science fiction and the new New Wave will rediscover its purpose and its sense of direction.

(Jeffrey Alan Love’s unique and beautiful cover for Wolves – if this doesn’t win a strew of ‘best artwork’ awards next year there’s no justice in this world. Read Love’s moving account of how he came to create this cover here.)

Locus recommends

The annual Locus Recommended Reading list, compiled by Locus magazine’s editors and contributors, has just been released. As always, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the year in SFF, as well as an invaluable reference point for word lengths and first publication details. I’m particularly thrilled to note the presence of both Stardust and Spin on the list, in the Collections and Novellas categories respectively. I feel honoured to be included – the Cellections category in particular showcases some amazing books, and highlights just how important and innovative the collection is becoming as a form. This is a fascinating subject in its own right actually, deserving of a separate blog post – I’ll have a think on it.

In the meantime, you can hear an in-depth discussion of just how the Locus lists are arrived at on the Coode Street Podcast #176