Monthly Archives: March 2014


This is just to let everyone know that my blog may go quiet for the next couple of weeks. This does not mean I’ve resigned my interest in things science fictional – it means I’m in Australia.

My mum turned 70 this year, and as a special birthday present to herself, decided she wanted us to go on a trip together, first to visit my brother in Sydney, and then on to Tasmania to explore the wilderness parks there. So that’s what we’re doing. We fly out this evening, return on April 11th/12th. This truly is the chance of a lifetime, a journey I could never have afforded to make without my mum’s generosity, so big thanks to her.

We’ll be staying in and around Mole Creek, Cradle Mountain, and St Mary’s on the northeast coast. I’m hoping to record my experiences in a sort-of journal day by day, and already have ideas for stories I might want to write later. I’m sure these will evolve and change as I go along.

What I’m not sure about though is what my internet access is going to be like – some of the places we’re travelling to are pretty far-flung. I will blog from Tasmania if I possibly can – otherwise bear with me, I’ll be posting updates and photos and news as soon as possible after April 12th.

Similarly, if any of you happen to email me over the next couple of weeks and I don’t get back to you as quickly as I would like to, don’t worry – normal service will be resumed asap.

In the meantime, why not provide me with some good old-fashioned awards scandals to get me incensed about on my return..?

See you on the other side.

3 out of 6 ain’t bad

The 2014 Clarke Award shortlist has just been announced:

~ Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
~ God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
~ The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)
~ Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (Orbit)
~ The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)
~ The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

I guessed three correctly, so a better strike rate than last year, a fact that is far less interesting than the shortlist itself. And what a fascinating line-up it is.

I remember noting Nexus as a ‘possible’ when it came out, right back at the beginning of 2013, but reviews were mixed, and so it slipped off my radar. Similarly with the Phillip Mann – I know a lot of people were really looking forward to a new work from Mann, but many were disappointed by what they found. I can’t comment on either of these books personally, because I’ve not even sampled them yet, but it’s interesting to see two outside bets come to the fore like that.

Readers of the Arc blog will know how much I enjoyed and admired Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, but when it came to the Clarke, I suspected its earlier (US) publication date and prior awards exposure might count against it. I’m delighted to be wrong, delighted to see God’s War recognised for the fine piece of work it is. Interesting to see it going head-to-head now with Ancillary Justice, which I also reviewed for Arc. AJ is so much the ‘people’s favourite’ at the moment that its omission from the Clarke would have felt pretty weird, so well done Ann Leckie.  And it’s fantastic to see James Smythe get the nod for The Machine, a novel I loved right from the first page and that thoroughly deserves its shortlisting.

If there’s a unifying theme to this year’s shortlist, it’s that the six shortlisted works are all genre SF – no Ozeki, Atwood, Crumey, Theroux or Eggers this time around. But these are far from conventional choices, and they’re all quite different from each other, too. We have a techno-thriller, a far-future space opera, a near-future psychodrama, a work of philosophical eco-SF, an almost-New-Weird war story, and a many-worlds quantum love story.

It’s a shortlist that no one predicted – but as the Clarke is an award that celebrates the literature of the unexpected, that can’t be a bad thing. I shall be looking forward to seeing more commentary emerge in the coming weeks.

On a personal note, I can’t express how happy I am to see The Adjacent make the line-up. Huge congratulations to Chris, and to all the other shortlistees. May the games commence!

Judgement day

While I’m writing this, the Clarke Award judges and their chairman are in a meeting, making their final decisions (and, we would hope for nothing less, having their final arguments) about which six novels should make up this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. With the announcement of that shortlist just four days away, I thought it would be fun to cast a last look back over the list of submissions, and make my own final prediction about what that shortlist might look like. I’ve read a few more of the submitted titles since my first guesses, and in any case, two months is a long time in SF – opinions, emphases, gut feelings can change. So let’s do it! Here’s my predicted shortlist for March 18th:

The Secret Knowledge – Andrew Crumey. I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s lovely. Like all of Crumey’s work, The Secret Knowledge presents the perfect example of a ‘non-genre’ work that doesn’t shy away from science fictional ideas. It’s beautifully written (with Crumey you take that for granted) but it’s not overwritten. Direct, clear, engaging from the first page, I like this in the same way I liked Robert J. Lennon’s Familiar, but on balance I like it even more, probably because it’s less coy about being SF. I’m full of enthusiasm for The Secret Knowledge, and my Crumey Crusade goes on.

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins. Just a feeling, a sudden hunch. I reckon there’ll be an almighty row about the ending – in that there isn’t one – but that a couple of judges will be passionate enough about this book (the writing is very lovely, and the alt-Russia setting, whatever my own personal misgivings, will command significant attention) to see it win a place among the shortlisted six.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. I think this is going to be a shoo-in. Big, far-future SF, intelligently written and with some engaging core concepts, probably the most discussed SF novel of 2013 and how could it escape notice here?  I think its emotional range is limited, and my eventual verdict on this book will be determined by where and how far Leckie goes from here. But I can understand why the judges would want to select it, and I won’t mind seeing it on the shortlist if they do.

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki. An interesting case, this. I think it will divide opinion – some will see it as tediously self indulgent, others will see it as sensitive, beautifully written and radical in its ideas and the way it conveys them. Oddly, it’s kind of both things at the same time. It’s actually a novel with a great deal to say, and – given the complexity of some of the subjects involved – it says it gracefully and well. But it is one of those novels (I’m becoming increasingly impatient with them, interestingly) that dance around their science fictionality without ever properly coming to terms with it. Chris bailed on this book after forty pages. I read the whole thing, with increasing enjoyment and appreciation, but without ever entirely losing my doubts. A sincere and talented writer, certainly, but will she take her Kitschies win as a signal to continue her explorations in SF? I don’t think so, somehow.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest. This book does everything the Ozeki doesn’t do and then some. It’s proper SF, from a master of the genre, genuinely chilling, rapturously beautiful, compellingly mysterious. A novel that readers and critics will still be enthusing and puzzling over a hundred years from now, the judges would have to be mad not to include it.

The Machine – James Smythe. A small but perfectly formed novel. Great core conceit, beautifully executed with excellent sense of place and good characterisation. Demonstrates that British SF is alive and well and doing interesting things. I think this one will be a favourite of all the judges, and will wing it through to the shortlist as a result.

Well, that’s my guess – as it turns out, books from all three of my previous putative shortlists are on there, together with one title that wasn’t on any of them. But it’s so difficult to call! Quite a lot depends on how rigorous this year’s judging panel are going to be about the whole SF/Fantasy divide. If they’re fantasy liberals, we might well see Patrick Ness, Jess Richards, Andrei Kurkov or Wu Ming-Yi making an appearance. If they’re hardline SF purists, there’s a higher likelihood that Paul McAuley or even Greg Egan might make a showing. Meanwhile, I’m still carrying a personal torch for Matt Hill’s The Folded Man, Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, and Tony White’s Shackleton’s Man Goes South.

Well, the decision is being made even as we speak. To say I’d love to be a fly on the wall is an understatement, but as always, all we ask is that the judges give us a shortlist that will make us think, argue, spark decades-long feuds and – most of all – help turn some new readers on to SF and its infinite possibilities for intellectual exploration and creative expression.

Let it be so.


“Will you come after me if I don’t come back? If you can?”

Reading Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Annihilation this weekend, what struck me most forcibly was how old it felt as a text, how ingrained within the New Weird mythos, how well established. Like the gargantuan pile of abandoned journals discovered by the novel’s narrator (of which the book in your hands must necessarily be one), subjective experience insists it is other than logic dictates.

More than a couple of reviewers liken Annihilation to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. And while it is true that VanderMeer’s novel, in its account of an expedition into a mysterious and evidentially dangerous altered territory, Area X, would appear to owe at least some debt of inspiration to that seminal work, it is also something quite different, something other.

Annihilation doesn’t really remind me of M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing either – and that novel uses a quote from the Strugatskys as its epigraph. A narrative that takes place entirely from within Area X – Roadside Picnic without the wider world, Nova Swing without Saudade, without the spaceport – lends Annihilation a particular claustrophobia that makes the experience of reading it – this found text – entirely unique. The novel is rare generically as well – science fiction that is properly horror and vice versa. Lovecraft fans should adore this – but if you prefer your SFF to be grounded in a scientifically arguable reality you will (just stick with it) be seduced by it too. What you think you’re reading at the start, you turn out not to be. Whilst all the initial stages of this novel’s journey had me thinking of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, by the end my head was full of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

This is a flawlessly written book. The prose is spare yet dense, allusive yet cogent, immersive yet objective. The descriptive passages are magnetic, without ever being overwritten. Perhaps the best summation of these seeming contradictions is to say that Annihilation will answer all your questions about itself, yet will nonetheless remain elusive, powerfully mysterious, and open-ended. In short, this is the very best kind of novel, the kind that eschews intrusive writerly mannerisms and promptings in favour of letting the reader get stuck into forming their own opinions from the very first page.

As a lifelong horror fan, I’m always on the defensive when it comes to what I tend to think of as Hollywoodisms. So there’s a team of explorers who volunteer to form a twelfth expedition into an ominously named patch of territory where the previous eleven expeditions have all gone AWOL in one (bad) way or another? The shadowy organisation that sent them in has forbidden them to use either each other’s first names or functioning digital technology? “Yeah right,” my Scream-self muttered. “Why would they do that?”

I soon found out why they did that. And it made sense. This is what I mean when I say that Annihilation feels established. This novel is so original and strange it feels as if several generations of horror writers have drawn their inspiration from it, rather than the other way around.

It defies logic, but it is so. Annihilation is a superior achievement, and although it works perfectly well as a standalone novel, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second and third instalments of the trilogy.

My Hugo Ballot 2014

Getting around to this has been a problem. Not because I don’t enjoy compiling nominations lists, because (as everyone who knows me knows) I do. Partly it’s that we’ve been so busy in recent weeks (more updates to follow in due course) that I’ve not had the time to give this ballot the full attention I feel it deserves. There’s also the fact that the more time passes, the more doubts I seem to accrue about the process in general. I’m not about to go off on a massive anti-Hugo rant – my general position on awards is that anything that gets people discussing, enthusing and arguing about books is bound to have more good in it than bad, and as for the Jonathan Ross thing, enough already – it’s just that I’m all too aware of how little I’ve read of what’s actually available. In the fields of short fiction particularly, my percentage coverage is lamentable. It follows from this that I’ll be voting for some works I think are good, rather than those works I know (through exhaustive reading) are at the top of the field. I know I’m no different in this from the vast majority of voters – but what it means, inevitably, is that the same small pool of works tend to enjoy a disproportionate amount of publicity, while other, equally fine and perhaps better works slip through the voting net.

I don’t like this state of affairs, and I don’t think it’s good for the field. I’m not sure what can best be done, but for now I’m going to let the rest of fandom go on arguing about it on my behalf. Time is running short, and if I’m going to nominate I need to get my ballot sorted pretty much now.

Maybe by next year I’ll have found a way of solving the various nomination dilemmas (yeah right). Until then, for what it’s worth, here’s my Hugo ballot for 2014:


Best Novel

MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood. Go read Adam Roberts’s review at Strange Horizons if you want to understand my reasons for nominating this heavily flawed, unique work of science fiction. Atwood should be celebrated, in my opinion, as a jewel in SF’s crown. So she doesn’t properly understand the nomenclature, so what?? She can write, by God.

The Accursed – Joyce Carol Oates. The fifth instalment in Oates’s decades-spanning loosely connected ‘gothic’ series. Oates is a genius, and I don’t use the word lightly. She should win everything.

The Adjacent – Christopher Priest. My favourite science fiction novel of 2013, bar none.

A Stranger in Olondria – Sofia Samatar. I think Samatar’s work is remarkable, full stop. Her command of language is superlative. She is a joy to read.

The Machine – James Smythe. I know I keep going on about this one, but it really is that good!


Best Novella

Memory Palace – Hari Kunzru. I’m nominating the text, not the exhibition. 10,000 words of top notch SF: radiantly alive, radical, a showpiece of the novella form.

Iseul’s Lexicon – Yoon Ha Lee. One of the most original, accomplished and compelling voices in SF today.

Dogs with their Eyes Shut – Paul Meloy. I’ve loved Meloy’s work ever since I stumbled across his collection Islington Crocodiles, which should have won every ‘Best Collection’ award going in its year of publication. My only problem with Meloy is that he doesn’t write enough!

Burning Girls – Veronica Shanoes. I came across this while I was reading for my Short Fiction Snapshot feature at Strange Horizons. My only reason for not selecting it was that it was too long to fit the format. It’s a remarkable work.

Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne Valente. I love the way this is told, but then Valente is always amazing, so what did I expect? Wonderful work.


Best Novelette

‘Paranormal Romance’Christopher Barzak. I love Barzak’s voice, his tendency towards metafiction. He’s just a very good writer, and should be more widely appreciated.

‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ – Ted Chiang. I love Chiang’s documentary approach, the way his words, and his worlds, sneak up on you. I also love stories about writing, about language. A damn fine writer.

‘Cave & Julia’ – M. John Harrison. The best short fiction of 2013. Period.

‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats’ – Caitlin R. Kiernan. I love everything Kiernan writes, and this is a classic.

‘Meet the President’ – Zadie Smith. Clearly out of the same mindset, stylewise, as her novel NW, Smith’s novelette is weird, spiky, interesting. Smith’s recently expressed interest in writing science fiction was greeted with the usual chorus of doubt from certain sections of fandom, Surely a writer like this should be encouraged??


Best Short Story

‘A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill’ – Elizabeth Knox. I wrote about this for my Short Fiction Snapshot feature at Strange Horizons and it has stayed with me ever since. I love Knox’s knowingness, her effortless command of genre tropes, and I love this story.

‘The 9th Technique’ – China Mieville. Distributed as a chapbook to members of the 2013 World Fantasy Convention as an ‘apology’ for his non-attendance, this is a story that deserves wider exposure. Written in a terse, tense prose that feels more pared down than Mieville’s more familiar high baroque but that is equally (if not more) compelling, I found it extraordinary, and wished it had gone on for longer.

‘Selkie stories are for Losers’ – Sofia Samatar. Loved this story. It’s a wonderful introduction to Samatar’s richly textured, evocative prose.

‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer‘- Kenneth Schneyer. I discovered this via Rachel Swirsky’s invaluable annual Short Fiction Recommendations and I’m so glad I did. Like Rachel, I like the art stuff, which is brilliantly done. Love it, wish I’d written it.

‘The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World’ – Catherynne Valente. Another one I discovered while reading for the Short Fiction Snapshot. For me, it seemed too good to spoil by trying to write about it.


Best Collection

North American Lake Monsters – Nathan Ballingrud. I’ve not read all the stories in this volume, but I’ve read enough to know how much I admire what Ballingrud is doing. Wonderful stuff.

The Ape’s Wife – Caitlin R. Kiernan. For me, Kiernan is one of the very finest writers working today, in any genre, period. Everything of hers I read, I wish I’d written.

Conservation of Shadows – Yoon Ha Lee. I just love these stories, and most especially the original forms many of them take. Maths, science, music, warfare – what more could you ask for in a collection? Lee’s command of language and imagery feels effortless and exhilarating. A wonderful discovery.

The Story Until Now – Kit Reed. I was put in the way of this volume by Paul Kincaid via Strange Horizons. Reed is one of those writers who seems criminally underappreciated.

How the World Became Quiet – Rachel Swirsky. And finally, a collection from Swirsky! Swirsky has a flawless poetic touch I’ve always envied, combined with pure, natural storytelling ability. Many of these mini-novels are just breathtaking.


Best Anthology

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells – Datlow/Windling. Some fine writers, some fine stories. I do find that my taste in SFF often coincides with Ellen’s, and so it’s no surprise that I always enjoy her anthologies.

Rustblind and Silverbright – David Rix. The fact that I have a story in this anthology has nothing whatsoever to do with my nomination. I’m nominating Rustblind because I love David’s concept. This is a properly themed anthology, beautifully arranged and considered, and amounting to so much more than many of the usual kind of ‘rag bag’ reprint anthologies. This project was a genuine labour of love for David, and deserves far wider notice.

The Lowest Heaven – Shurin/Perry. Great concept, and includes stories from some of my favourite new writers.


Best Related Work

The Transgressive Iain Banks – Colebrook/Cox

Here Be Dragons – Stefan Ekman

Speculative Fiction 2012 – Shurin/Landon

Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer

Afrofuturism – Ytasha L. Womack

For the most part, shamefully, I’ve only sampled bits and pieces of all of these. But I think the Best Related Work category is important, and unfairly neglected, and the above works all seem, for their various reasons, worthy of notice.


Best Dramatic Presentation (short form)

Another category where I feel inadequate to nominate. I love genre TV (it’s a favourite means of relaxation) but am so woefully behind on it my opinions are mostly valueless. We’re working our way through Fringe at the moment – lamentable, but such good fun I can’t resist it (although Chris most certainly could) – so you see how out of synch we are with the rest of fandom. Anyway, I’m nominating the below because (I confess!) I loved it, even if the appalling Christmas episode did its best to wipe all my good DW feelings off the map forever.

The Day of the Doctor

Best Dramatic Presentation (long form)

I found myself very disappointed by genre film in 2013. I don’t like franchises in any year, which always cuts down my choices in any case. Perhaps my biggest sad surprise though was how much I disliked Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (and for the record, I loved Primer). I’ve seen UC compared with late Malick, to which I would reply: yes, and that’s precisely the problem (have you seen To The Wonder? If not, you’ll find it in the dictionary under Self Indulgent). By far my favourite pure genre film in 2013 was Neil Jordan’s vampire movie Byzantium, which seemed to me to be the perfect small film. Other than that, I’m clutching at straws.

An Adventure in Space and Time


The East

Best Semiprozine

Strange Horizons. Because it rocks. Because the reviews section is second to none, because it actively seeks to encourage diversity across all areas and because its commitment to supporting and furthering excellence in SFF today is unquestioned. It’s largely because of Strange Horizons that I became interested in online fandom in the first place.

Interzone. Because it will always mean so much to me, and to British SF.

Los Angeles Review of Books (science fiction section). For publishing some of the most engaging and in-depth SF criticism around. I love this mag.

Lightspeed. A wonderful source of new fiction. Superb magazine.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Unique. Beautiful. Serious. Should be way better known.


Best Fanzine

The Book Smugglers


SF Mistressworks

SF Signal

The Speculative Scotsman


Best Fan Writer

Abigail Nussbaum. For me, Abigail is in a class of her own at the moment. She writes with all the passionate enthusiasm and insider knowledge of the true fan, whilst combining these assets with the erudite articulacy of a professional critic. Abigail’s pieces are a joy to read, and whether I wholly agree with her opinion of a book, story or argument or not, she always leaves me with something to think about, some new angle to check out. I’m in awe of her knowledge and her skill. She absolutely deserves a Hugo, and her shortlisting is long overdue.

For my other nominations in this category, I’m going for writers I always love reading, people who speak their minds – usually in gloriously entertaining fashion – whilst displaying the objectivity and core knowledge necessary to a rigorous and reasoned argument and without recourse to lazy ad hominems. (Anyone who resorts to ad hominems, ever, is going to have to work pretty hard to make me find lasting value in their offerings.) Here are four great fan writers whose reviews, postings and comments I always look forward to and wish there were more of:

Liz Bourke

Kameron Hurley

Martin Lewis

Jonathan McCalmont

Best Editor – Short Form

John Joseph Adams

Andy Cox

Ellen Datlow

Michael Kelly

Ian Whates

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Helen Marshall

Sofia Samatar

E.J. Swift

Enough said.