Monthly Archives: August 2014

The village oak

The oak tree that stands at the centre of our village is more than four hundred years old. It is a magnificent tree. Standing beside it gives you the most extraordinary feeling of being just the very latest point in an ongoing time continuum. I’ve read that the village oak was mentioned in certain accounts of the English Civil War. The tree is a living story, a powerful organic presence a single human being at a single moment in time can only dimly grasp the meaning of.

I lived in Exeter for the better part of twenty years. Throughout that period I worked as a music buyer for an independent chain of record stores, and three or four times each year I would take the Tarka Line train up to Barnstaple to do a stock check at the North Devon branch. I would always gaze out at the stations towards the middle of the route – Morchard Road, Eggesford, King’s Nympton – and think how wonderful it would be to leave the train at one of them, to step out into that landscape of forests and fields and farming hamlets and have somewhere to go.

Travelling home from Exeter after lunch with a friend, this is now exactly what I do. One of the profoundest and most fortuitous instances of deja vu I have ever experienced.

And this is where I go running:

It is remarkable, how swiftly and how entirely we have adapted.

Loncon and after

Well, we went to Loncon 3 and it was magnificent. The stats are now in, confirming the 2014 Worldcon as the biggest ever, but this in no way prevented it from being a friendly and spirited gathering with a surprisingly intimate feel. After the initial shock to the system (because it’s huge) the ExCel centre proved easy to navigate – much more so in fact than many of the smaller venues we have attended – and fun to explore. The facilities were excellent, the staff unfailingly helpful, the environment clean and tidy. The biggest shout-out though must go to the programme organisers, whose efforts in compiling a roster of events that genuinely did provide something for everyone must have been nothing short of Herculean. I would have needed a week or more to get to see and do everything I wanted to, but those panels I was able to attend, both as participant and spectator, were sure proof, if any were needed, of SF’s rude health as a genre. and the continuing and passionate sense of involvement felt by SF fans.

I would like to extend a massive personal thank you to everyone involved in making Loncon such a success and such an inspiring showcase for science fiction. I would also like to thank everyone who came to my book launch and my reading, who stopped me in the corridor to say hi, who shared time with us during those special few days. We had a fantastic time.

I came back to find this in my Inbox – the stunning artwork by Tara Bush that will be used to illustrate my story ‘Marielena’ in Interzone #254:

To say I’m pleased with this would be a rash understatement. The magazine will also feature the first in my new series of columns for Interzone. This is a whole new venture for me, and I’m excited to see how it pans out. I’m hoping to develop some arguments, talk about some books, and hopefully introduce some writers people may not have encountered before. So plenty to think about. At the moment and what with everything that’s been happening this summer I’m just relieved to have delivered the first column on time!

fragment

When you think of all the ways that a person can die, the powerlessness we feel in the face of cancer, or a violent earthquake or even simple old age, it would seem to be the ultimate expression of human madness to set about inventing new ways to kill one another.

When you think even of a common housefly, the jewelled intricacy of its workings, the impossibility for a human scientist of ever, ever being able to construct something one-tenth as fit for purpose, one-hundredth as beautiful…

It is both incredibly easy to kill a person, and nightmarishly difficult. Thousands may be eliminated in less than a second, reduced soundlessly to dust and blown away on the wind. Yet the same blast will leave others maimed and monstrous, injured beyond recovery with days of agonised suffering still ahead.

I think of these things, that I have seen, and I feel tired. It is both a miracle and an affront that my life can now proceed as before, in spite of all this, that I can enjoy the privilege of recovery. I helped one person. This does not feel like nearly enough to justify my continued survival, yet I am glad to be alive.

Somewhere inside myself I carry the delusion that it will help, to write things down, that it will justify my actions, even.

The truth is that no one cares if I was selfish or not, or brave or not. They – you – are all too concerned with your own place in the scheme of things, with your righteous opinions and clever predictions and pathetic, self-serving generalisations.

If I could only believe that it will not happen again, I would give up my anger. It will happen again, though. It is only the abattoir workers who don’t eat meat, have you noticed that? Those who were there.

The rest of us, safe on the outside, we make tutting noises, and resolutions, but we keep on buying our lamb’s liver and our salami.

 

I first heard a recording by Agafya Doers when I was eight years old, the first concerto by Medtner, recorded when Doers was still a young woman, studying at the Moscow Conservatoire. I had been taking piano lessons for two years already, but it was that record by Doers that made me begin to imagine my future as a musician.

The Medtner is a crazed work, really, one of those overblown Romantic concertos written in the first decades of the twentieth century that possess the gladiatorial spirit of similar nineteenth century works – Tchaikovsky, Saint Saens – but none of their certainties. Trenchantly opposed to modernism, they still cannot avoid the slide into harmonic breakdown and psychological disarray.

There were people who described Medtner’s work as demonic. His first concerto is a towering white elephant, a cacophony of monster chords and bombast that manages to fuse the sensibilities of a royalist conservative with a bomb-throwing revolutionary. It is a tiresome thing, all insistence and no intellect. Its worked-out themes bombastically lament the passing of the age that fought to retain slavery and culminated in the seething battlefields of the First World War. It is a work that ought only to be listened to in the concert hall, where it can at least be offered the elbow room sufficient to offset its slovenly table manners.

Doers’s recording, like any truly great artistic endeavour, slams the door in the face of such arguments, sends them off with a swear word and a thick ear. It is so thrilling that, listening to it, you cannot escape the sneaking feeling that you are engaged in an illicit activity. The blocks of chords, carved from granite, are delivered with such authority that it makes you feel certain that this is the finest music that has yet been written.

As an eight-year-old child, Agafya Doers’s performance – it was my father’s record, bought on a whim (it was my mother who had insisted that I should learn the piano) – impacted itself upon me like a coded message from what I hoped might be my own future. Staring at the black-and-white photograph of Doers on the reverse side of the record sleeve, I came the closest I’d yet come to falling in love.

The immediate effect of this was that I began to take my piano practice more seriously. I followed every twist and turn of Doers’s career – her victory in the Tchaikovsky competition, her friendship with the Italian composer Odette Hirschel, the falsified reports of her defection in 1958 – and when she came to perform in Leipzig in 1959 I badgered my mother senseless until she agreed that we should go. It was an expensive business – as well as the cost of the tickets, we would have to stay in a hotel overnight – but I had never been the kind of child to routinely make extravagant requests, and what with my teachers confirming that it would be ‘a good experience’ for me, my mother must have thought it worth the outlay.

Doers wasn’t playing the Medtner. (“That untidy thing!” she said to me, two years later. We knew each other better by then. “I can’t remember now why I decided to learn it.”) If you look up her CV, you’ll see that she never played that concerto in public again after 1955. She was playing a new work, a sprawling concertante by Pavel Zaitsky, originally written for Igor Aitmatov but enthusiastically championed by Doers from the time of its Moscow premiere in 1956. I’d never heard it before, but I’d read the notices. I had saved up for a copy of the expensive sheet music, even though the concerto was well beyond my abilities at that time.

My most cherished hope was that Doers would sign it for me, which she did.

Two years later, I was awarded a scholarship to go and study with her, as one of the six privately selected students she took on each year.

‘I know it will be inconvenient’, she wrote to me, three months before I was due to take up my scholarship. ‘But we will have to be in Voronezh this year because of my grandmother.’ From the beginning of our acquaintance she always wrote to me by hand, on the same poor quality ruled notepaper, in her awful German, in the close, crabbed handwriting that I could barely read at first but that by the time I actually travelled to Voronezh had become as familiar to me as my own.

I remember the almost unearthly thrill of that first letter, how I hardly dared answer it for fear of sounding foolish. Doers was normally based in Kiev, but her grandmother had fallen ill, and Doers had recently been forced to return there to look after her. ‘She more or less brought me up,’ she wrote to me. She used half a page of the letter to describe the state her grandmother’s flat had been in when she arrived in the city, then another half page bemoaning the lack of a decent piano tuner, then finished off with a close and perfect analysis of my taped recording of the Chopin third sonata which the Academy had sent her as a demo tape.

I still have no idea if she really remembered our first, very brief encounter in the backstage area of the Staatshalle in Leipzig, but she knew my Chopin, note for note, just as she always remembered every detail of our lessons, perfectly and in sequence.

Doers’s grandmother died two weeks before I arrived in Voronezh. Typically, Doers refused to consider moving back to Kiev until the following summer.

‘Everything’s been arranged,’ she wrote to me. ‘I can’t possibly uproot myself now, not at this short notice.’

More than anything, Doers hated any disruption to her routine. She used to say that practical disruptions left scars on her mind.

She begrudged any and every moment spent thinking about anything that wasn’t music. Voronezh was inconvenient, but changing her plans would be even more disruptive, so she decided to stay.

I didn’t mind. Everyone said Voronezh was the back of beyond, but having lived my whole life in a small rural village in Eastern Germany that kind of obscurity was something I was used to.

I would be studying with Agafya Doers. The idea of being isolated, cut off from everything except music, secretly appealed to me.

If her grandmother had died three months earlier, Doers would have remained in Kiev, and I would have been a different person.

And another thing…

The Race is now available to order as a Kindle eBook! At just £2.59, I think that’s quite a bargain. There’s a generously sized free sample, too, so you can try before you buy.

The paperback edition is also up and available for pre-order at £12.99. There’ll be a link to the limited edition signed hardback very soon.

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland offers his thoughts on The Race in a review that is both articulate and deeply insightful:

“Allan is trying something rather unusual with The Race: a distancing novel about drawing in, a science fiction novel aware of its own artifice, a literary fiction impatient with mimesis.”

It is fascinating, discomfiting and rather wonderful to have one’s work subjected to such careful scrutiny. For anyone wanting to know what The Race is ‘about’, I would urge them to go and read Dan Hartland’s review – he explains things so much better than I do…

Launching The Race

Just to let everyone know that The Race will be launched at LonCon on Friday August 15th at 16.30 as part of the NewCon Press launch event. We will also be celebrating the release of Adam Roberts’s collection of essays and non-fiction Sibilant Fricative, the completely revised and expanded new edition of Chris Beckett’s first novel Marcher, and the brand new NewCon anthology Paradox.

I’ll also be reading an extract from The Race earlier the same day at 11.30, so if you can’t make the launch, do come along to the reading and say hello.

Meanwhile, the very first review of The Race has just gone live at Rising Shadow:

“The Race is a beautifully written, complex and absorbing debut novel that deserves to be read and praised. It’s an exceptionally compelling and original speculative fiction novel that will resonate among readers who enjoy reading literary speculative fiction and quality novels.”

Which is good to hear.