Monthly Archives: June 2014

Back in the Lot

While boxing up books this week, I’ve had Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot on audiobook to keep me company. I think I’m right in saying that SL is actually the first of King’s novels I ever had contact with – not through the text, but through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV adaptation, starring David Soul and James Mason. I was thirteen at the time, and I don’t think I’m the only one who had the bejeezus scared out of me by the image of little Danny Glick, scraping at the window to be let in. I don’t know what it says about me that I forced myself against my will to watch Part 2, just to prove to myself that I could do it, but that’s how it was.

It was another twenty years before I read the novel. I remember being impressed by it, especially by King’s evocation of American small town life. Listening to the audiobook this past week I’ve found this aspect of the novel, if anything, even more impressive. In his essay on SL for his Rereading Stephen King series for The Guardian, James Smythe says:

When I was younger, it was the second half that enraptured me: the rush of the hunt (on both sides); the thrill of not knowing who would and wouldn’t survive; and the pain of how much this affected the characters… Now, it’s the start that I love most. It’s the slowest of slow burns, all hints and drip-feed. King infuses it with descriptions that start you thinking about vampires before they even factor in the novel. “She dipped her head to suck at the straw,” goess one passage, describing the drinking of a root beer. “Her neck was beautifully muscled.” Another, during a kiss, reads: “She thought: he’s tasting me.” When the chaos finally unfolds, it’s a real payoff. You care.

You certainly do. So much so that I’m still undecided about King’s decision to have Susan Norton turn vamp. Dramatically of course he has to – she’s the Lucy Westenra figure – but emotionally I still feel nooooo that’s so unfair. Such personal involvement on the part of the reader is a sure sign of a writer doing their job.

It’s more than that, though. This time around, I was even more captivated by some of King’s writing about the town – those little prologues at the beginning of each section, depicting the town waking up, or the Marsten house on its hill as the sun goes down. There are passages here that feel galvanised by inspiration, feverish with it. It’s the real deal.

King wrote this novel – his second – when he was just twenty-eight years old. His approach to vampires – the heavy Catholic iconography, the rigid adherence to the Stoker version of the mythos – feels dated now, but that’s not King’s fault. SL was published in 1975, decades before the vampire industry kicked into gear. At the time, what he was doing – recreating a nineteenth-century classic in a truly modern idiom – must have seemed very new to him, as indeed it was. The fact that the writing itself still stands up in spite of the narrative showing its age a little is sure proof of its quality.

Salem’s Lot is a novel of passion – for the story, and for the craft of story. This is what most communicates itself to readers, what makes the novel endure. We need more books like this. More twenty-eight-year-old writers with guts enough to slam down their soul on the table and dare us to take it or leave it, because that’s how it is.

My LonCon schedule

I’ve packed seventy boxes of books this week, so please forgive brevity. The house-move is next Friday, so there is likely to be a blogging hiatus while we get ourselves sorted, but I’ll be looking forward to posting again as soon as I have a) internet and b) an office space that is halfway sane.

In the meantime, here is my schedule for the WorldCon. I have to say that from what I’ve seen so far (my own panel events, plus those of friends and colleagues I’ve been made party to) the programming for LonCon looks fantastic. The committee have clearly been working very hard to bring us a programme that is adventurous, relevant, diverse, entertaining and enjoyable to be involved with and I for one want to congratulate them on that.

I’m looking forward to LonCon. All the more so because I’m hoping we’ll have all our books out of boxes by then.

Friday 10:00 – 11:00 Don’t Tell Me What To Think: Ambiguity in SF and Fantasy

What does ambiguity (of setting, plot, identity, and so on) bring to a work of fantastic fiction? How is ambiguity created, and what effect does it have? Does it always work? Can a story be too ambiguous? The panel will discuss stories by Thomas M. Disch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and M. John Harrison, exploring exactly how they achieve their effects, and asking what divides a satisfyingly ambiguous story from an unsatisfying one.

(David Hebblethwaite, Nina Allan, Scott Edelman, Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Friday 11.30 – 12.00 Reading (probably something from The Race)

Friday 16:30 – 17.30 NewCon Press launch event

This event will see the official launch of The Race, along with a thoroughly revised edition of Chris Beckett’s novel Marcher, Adam Roberts’s collection of reviews and essays Sibilant Fricative, and the new NewCon anthology Paradox. I’m very much looking forward to this. Do please come along, say hello and get your signed copies!

Saturday 10:00 – 11:00 The Lexicon Gap

Prose Stylings, Voice, and Narrative Structure: As a reader, why should I care? These terms are often thrown around, but what do they really mean? And more importantly how should a reader translate them in to something useful for evaluating what they read?

(Alistair Rennie, Nina Allan, James Patrick Kelly, Stanislaw Krawczyk, Gary Wolfe)

Sunday 13:30 – 15:00 The Wrong Apocalypse

Zombies, aliens, and monsters from the deep are all very well, but — unlike climate change and other ongoing environmental damage — they’re not actually likely to cause the downfall of industrial civilisation. Are contemporary TV and film neglecting the apocalypse-in-progress? Where can ecological perspectives be found in SF and fantasy on screen, and how are they portrayed? What are the strengths and weaknesses of visual climate narratives, compared to their prose counterparts?

(Ramez Naam, Nina Allan, Jeff VanderMeer, Tiffani Angus, Ivaylo Shmilev)

Sunday 16.30 – 18.00 The Darkening Garden

John Clute’s The Darkening Garden (2007) argues for horror as a core mode of twenty-first century fiction. It proposes a narrative “grammar” for horror stories that progresses from SIGHTING through THICKENING to the REVEL and then AFTERMATH. What implications does this structure have for our understanding of horror, as a commercial genre and as a literary form? What works escape its grasp, and why?

(Paul Kincaid, Paul March-Russell, Nina Allan, Lisa Tuttle, Jeff VanderMeer)

Various updates

So – in just a couple of weeks we’ll be moving house.

We began this process back in February, and it’s been the predictable combination of acute stress and not much happening for ages, but finally we’re set to go and about to begin packing our books into boxes.

We’re both tremendously excited. It’s a new chapter, a new landscape, new sources of inspiration. More on all of this in due course.

Since my return from Australia back in April, I’ve been concentrating on short fiction – I’ve had some commissions pending, and also the whole house-moving thing has been so distracting that I decided to leave off working on the new novel until after the move has been completed. I’m itching to get back to it – and I have the feeling this short hiatus will have proved actively beneficial. In the meantime I’ve written two brand new stories (both should be out later in the year) and rediscovered a rather interesting novella that I’m currently in the process of redrafting. This has been an exhilarating experience – I’d forgotten how fascinatingly unpleasant the protagonist is – and I’m hoping to have the work complete by the end of this week.

After that, it’ll be time for some serious book-packing. We are in the interesting predicament of actually owning more books by weight than furniture by quite some distance…

Just a couple of random updates:

My story ‘Higher Up’ is being reprinted in Salt Publishing’s Best British Fantasy 2014, edited by Steve Haynes. This story was originally written for my limited edition collection Microcosmos, for NewCon Press. The ToC hasn’t been officially released yet, but I’ve seen the list, and with writers like Tim Maughan, Carole Johnstone and E. J. Swift in the lineup there’s no doubting it’s a fine selection, with a good balance between science fiction and fantasy as well. The book is due out in July.

I can also announce that I have a story in Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates. Similarly, the ToC hasn’t been officially released yet, but with Adam Roberts, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ken Liu. Ian R. MacLeod. Aliette de Bodard and Rachel Swirsky among the contributors it looks like being a fascinatingly varied, thought-provoking anthology with some truly diverse interpretations of where science fiction is at in 2014. The book will be launched on August 13th, at Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road, and with a second launch event at LonCon just a day or two later.  I’m delighted to be a part of this one – my story, ‘The Science of Chance’, has a significant relationship with the novel-in-progress, which makes it a special story for me.

Talking of novels, ARCs of The Race are currently being sent out, pending the book’s official launch, also at LonCon, on August 15th. It was a deeply strange moment, finally holding the book in my hands, and seeing the stories of these characters – Jenna, Christy, Alex and Maree – take on reality in the world beyond my hard drive. I’m very excited about the launch, and about LonCon in general. I’ve just received my draft schedule, and this, together with various bits of info I’ve gleaned from friends and colleagues, leads me to believe that the organisers have come up with a once-in-a-lifetime-calibre programme. Can’t wait to get stuck in.

Finally and belatedly, just to mention that I have two nominations in the British Fantasy Awards, both in the novella category, for ‘Spin’ and for ‘Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle’. It’s thrilling news of course, and it’s particularly pleasing to see that Rustblind and Silverbright, the railway-themed anthology that David Rix edited for Eibonvale Press and Vivian Guppy’s original home, has also been shortlisted in the Best Anthology category. In her year’s summation for Best Horror of the Year 6, Ellen Datlow describes Rustblind as ‘a terrific anthology’ and notes that ‘the interstitial material by editor David Rix is consistently fascinating.’  For me personally, Rustblind demonstrates a quality of cohesion, of thematic intent, that is all too often lacking in anthologies. The stories that David has selected feel like they belong together, and each is strengthened and accelerated, if you like, by the others’ presence. Too many anthologies end up having a disparate, ‘rag bag’ feel – you don’t know where to start, and all too often you lay the book aside long before the finish. Rustblind is the opposite of that – you sense you’re being taken on a journey, which to my mind is the whole point of the format, and in a book about railways especially so.

The full list of BFA nominees can be found here.

On playing catch-up

David Hebblethwaite of Follow the Thread recently wrote this fascinating post about his recent experience of being a ‘shadow judge’ for this year’s Desmond Elliot Prize and Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, as well as reading and critiquing this year’s Clarke Award shortlist and last year’s Man Booker. The conclusions he draws are worrying for SFF:

“I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, [SFF] was certainly keeping pace [with the literary mainstream]: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that SF is struggling to keep up.”

David argues that SF has become increasingly conservative, not only in terms of textual form, but also in its willingness to actively engage with contemporary political and social issues – the arena where SF is naturally constituted to excel, in other words. I’m afraid I would tend to agree with him, and would probably go on to add evocative and original use of language to the charter of lack.

Of course, one year’s Clarke Award shortlist does not reveal the full picture of what is (or is not) happening in SFF. The six books we end up shadow-judging have not been selected by an infallibly correct AI, hardwired to home in on objectively the best (as if there even were such a thing) science fiction novels published in the UK in any given year, but by five very human judges whose personal tastes and inclinations are always going to vary considerably and thank goodness for that. And yet, in a year when our five judges could have selected works by Marcel Theroux, Margaret Atwood or Robert J. Lennon yet somehow conspired to come up with Ramez Naam and Philip Mann, instead of forewarning the terminal decline of SFF, might it not be more reasonable simply to ask (as per usual) what the hell were they thinking? The Kitschies had Ruth Ozeki, Anne Carson and Thomas Pynchon on their shortlist, after all, so the game can’t be over just yet.

But we all know perfectly well that David isn’t talking about Pynchon or Carson, writers who, brilliant and innovative as they are, are drawing their influence from SF, rather than contributing actively to the SF conversation. It is not the SF conversation that interests them – I’m sure they barely know it exists – but the metaphorical possibilities of speculative ideas within a mainstream literary context.

(Before I go any further I ought to add that I get terribly nervous around these concepts – or not nervous around the concepts themselves so much as the difficulty of explicating them. I am a writer who works largely by instinct – by touch, if you will, rather than by sight – and my critical apparatus for analysing positions I instinctively understand are fundamentally opposed is not anywhere near so finely tuned as that of Ethan Robinson, say, who earlier this year produced an essay on this subject that is so articulate, so adroit and so necessary I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in all the months since.)

David writes:

“I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could.”

The term ‘genre’ is often employed as an adjective of general disparagement for writers or works that are ‘not literary’, but what science fiction critics mean when they talk about ‘genre SF’ is something rather different and a lot more constructive: works that are written from within science fiction consciously as science fiction, as active contributions to the SF conversation, as opposed to essentially mainstream works that happen to make use of science fictional conceits.

I have wasted a whole lot of time in my time, trying to pretend that the latter can be the former, but it just ain’t so (for reasons why, see Mr Robinson’s essay. The only example of a contemporary mainstream writer I can think of who has written ‘proper’, contributory SF is, ironically, Margaret Atwood). The former can and do leapfrog their way in among the latter, though – a fact many mainstream critics dislike so much they will seldom if ever admit the truth of it – and this is where the crux of David’s argument lies. He maintains that fewer SF works than previously are making that leap, and that SF as a whole is on a downward trajectory as a result. I agree. But why is it so? And what needs to happen for this unfortunate trend to be reversed?

I had an interesting experience the other day. I was sitting on the floor of my office, trying to put a call through to the council tax department of Hastings Borough Council (long story). Beside me on the floor was a stack of books (it’s still there) and while the hold music droned on I picked up the book on top of the pile and began leafing through it. That book was/is Samuel R. Delany’s Driftglass, in its Gollancz ‘yellowjacket’ edition. Out of curiosity and perhaps in an attempt to prove something to myself (the issue at the core of this essay is on my mind a lot of the time) I began reading the first paragraphs of all the stories in that collection. I found, as I suspected I would, in each and every one of them language that was chewy and textured and gorgeous and capricious, ideas that sneaked out and bit your ass, storylines that had you caught from the first sentence. Fuck, I thought. This is how it’s done. Out of idle curiosity (and because I still hadn’t got through to the council tax office) I then glanced at the book’s back flap, which displayed a list of ‘Recent Gollancz SF’. Not classics, or Masterworks, just recent Gollancz SF. The works listed there, in no particular order, were by Philip K. Dick, George R. R. Martin, Frederik Pohl, Ian Watson, Robert Silverberg, Algis Budrys, and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

I thought about this – what a fascinating snapshot of the science fiction writers Gollancz just happened to be publishing in 1971 – and then I found myself wondering what a comparable back flap from a book published today (let’s say a Gollancz book, for the sake of consistency, though I want to make it clear that this argument is by no means about Gollancz specifically) might have to tell us about the current state of British SF publishing and I tell you, it didn’t make for happy contemplation.

With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood – where the risk lies, in other words – aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?

I heard from a reliable source recently that [a certain major SF publisher] are steering away from ‘difficult’ SF at the moment, because the sales of [probably the best book they’ll publish this year] have proved so disappointing. If sales are so disappointing, perhaps they should ask themselves if this might have anything to do with the fact that they’ve devoted precious little effort to publicizing the book – they didn’t even organise a launch event for it. Perhaps it’s they that have fallen down on the job, because it certainly isn’t the author, or the book. I heard from a second trusted source that another big SF imprint have only acquired one new writer in the past twelve months – too bad then that the book they decided to give their backing to is a pallid, half-hearted dystopia that will make zero impact on the genre and will fade away unnoticed within two months of publication. Meanwhile, one of the few seriously good new writers is being threatened with contract curtailment due – again – to disappointing sales figures, and not a word about the likely cause of those figures, that the imprint cocked up their marketing policy, effectively separating the book from its core readership.

I think there’s actually a serious problem with the way the larger publishing imprints view SF in the current market. Back in the day, when Gollancz was publishing Delany and Disch and Dick, SF was seen by publishers as the next big thing, the literature of the new, wilfully different from mainstream social realism, something they might well benefit from promoting. We had Faber publishing new young SF writers like Christopher Priest, Brian Aldiss and Kit Reed. We had Kingsley Amis writing New Maps of Hell. We had the formal innovations of the New Wave. I’d go so far as to say that science fiction was viewed by both its readers and its promoters as a warrior literature that threw down a challenge to the old order. It’s always tempting to hark back to ‘the good old days’ as a kind of golden age of literary enlightenment, and I don’t mean to suggest that was the case at all – but it does seem to me that SF today, far from being a warrior literature, is seen by the industry as a readily marketable, easily packaged, tasty junk food full of ‘cool stuff’ and bits of shiny. They don’t want it to throw down a challenge, because conventional wisdom states that challenge frightens readers. So much easier to publish another low-grade zombie novel, especially when that’s precisely what your colleagues over at [-] will be doing, too.

It would seem self evident that cowardly publishing makes for cowardly writing, and it’s a vicious circle. The SF commentariat has preoccupied itself a great deal – and rightly so – in recent years with the industry’s continuing inequalities in terms of gender split. When faced with the question of why they don’t publish more women, industry representatives have often tended to fall back on the truism that they can’t publish what isn’t being submitted. To me at least it would seem self evident that if these same industry representatives genuinely considered it important and/or financially worthwhile that more SF by women be published, they would be pretty damn quick about getting off their arses and finding some. I would suggest that the same principle is also true of innovative, challenging, paradigm-shifting SF: the reason that so little of it is being published is not because it’s not being written, but because the industry is not going out of its way to find it, promote it, stimulate demand for it. Because stimulating demand, promotion, acquisition of talent – are these not after all the industry’s key functions?

If that’s what’s (not) happening, what can we do about it? In one of the comments on David’s post, Tomcat in the Red Room writes:

“You’d think 10 years after Light and the New Weird and the rise of Michael Cisco etc, that there would, indeed, be more new writers trying/(influenced by) that kinda stuff. Does SF need its own David Foster Wallace to write a novel in fractals, I wonder?”

The short answer to that, Tom, is yes, we do. We also need a publishing industry that believes enough in its readers to offer them something more than the literary equivalent of processed white bread, we need readers to keep on complaining and debating and arguing the toss. Most of all, we need writers to stop drawing their influences from Supernatural and The Walking Dead – to switch off the crap SFF derivatives and start taking some risks. As writers, we need to remind the world that we are still a guerrilla literature. Writers who let themselves be conned by the major imprints into moderating their voices may think they’re buying themselves some security, but they’re not. What they’re actually purchasing is their own expendability.

Tell them you won’t buy it.

Complications wins GPI

Thrilled to announce that Complications, the French edition of my story collection The Silver Wind, has just been announced as the winner of the prestigious Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire in the Foreign Short Fiction category. In the GPI, which is roughly the French equivalent of the Clarke Award, the Short Fiction prize can be awarded either to a single short story or to a collection. In the case of Complications, the award is for the book as a whole, and I’m particularly delighted to report also that my translator, Bernard Sigaud, took the Jacques Chambon Translation Prize for his work on the collection. Congratulations, Bernard!

To have Complications singled out in this way by the GPI jury is a huge honour, one that’s only just starting to sink in. Every commendation and my own hugest possible thanks should go to my publishers at Editions Tristram, Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot, for having confidence in my book and in me as a writer, in bringing my work to French readers, in providing such amazing support and commitment to this project. This is every bit as much their prize as mine.

A full list of GPI winners and shortlistees can be found here.