Monthly Archives: September 2014

cover stories

I’ve just received previews of the cover art for the upcoming Spanish edition of Tejedora/Spin, the French edition of Stardust/Legendes de Ruby Castle, and the mass market French edition of Complications/The Silver Wind. I think they’re all simply stunning – all three briefs have been interpreted in beautifully original and striking ways, and I’m thrilled to have such wonderful artists working on my behalf – and I couldn’t resist sharing them with you here.




Flesh and Bones

“Kevern, look. I don’t know when your mother did these, but they are of another time. Art has changed. We have returned to the primordial celebration of the loveliness of the natural world. You  can see there is none of that in what your mother did. See how fractured her images are. There is no harmony here. The colours are brutal – forgive me, but you have asked me and I must tell you. I feel jittery just turning the pages. Even the human body, that most beautiful of forms, is made jagged and frightful. The human eye cannot rest for long on these, Kevern. There is too much mind here. They are disruptive of the peace we go to art to find.” (J, p 272)


When the longlist for the Man Booker prize was announced two months ago, I expressed delight that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had been selected – a choice that could only, I suggested, be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker – and surprise at the inclusion of Howard Jacobson. Not that the choice of Jacobson himself was anything out of the ordinary – he’s won the prize once already – but that in J he had produced a work that everyone seemed to agree was science fiction. I felt curious about that, to put it mildly, and thought it might be interesting in the run-up to the prize to read both works and compare them, to discover how two such outwardly dissimilar writers had chosen to approach speculative themes, to see which – if either – eventually made it through to the shortlist.

We now know the answer to that last – Jacobson’s J made the cut, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks didn’t. But what of the books themselves? Mitchell’s novel was the bookies’ favourite right through the longlist period, with both mainstream and SFF critics expressing strong opinions about it, and its disinclusion came as something of a shock. Conversely, no one seemed to be talking much about J, and the previously Booker-crowned Jacobson appeared something of an outsider. At the time of the shortlist announcement I was about halfway through The Bone Clocks, and planning to move on to J as soon as I’d finished. Having now read them both. I think it’s safe to say that my opinions coming out of this particular reading experience are pretty much the opposite of what I expected. That in itself has made this mini-project worthwhile.

I went into The Bone Clocks from the position of having read all Mitchell’s previous works bar one (The Thousand Autumns) and considered them all well above average, both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of what Mitchell was trying to achieve with it. I had a particular fondness for Black Swan Green, and thought both the concept and execution of Cloud Atlas close to miraculous. I was expecting big things of The Bone Clocks, especially given that it had been widely tagged as Mitchell’s most openly speculative novel to date.

That is true – it is – but that goes no way towards mitigating the fact that in my opinion it is also Mitchell’s weakest novel by quite some distance. The mainstream critics who thought the novel was let down by its ‘plunge’ into fantasy in the fifth segment pointed to the rest of the novel – its five realworld sections – as proof of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. If only he’d ditch all this awful genre nonsense, they seemed to be saying, we might actually have a decent writer on our hands. Many of those same critics have pointed to Mitchell’s characterisation – and his portrayal of his central character Holly Sykes in particular – as the chief strength of the novel, but for me it felt patchy at best, bland for the most part, and dire at worst. Far from being a brilliantly realised creation Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own. We learn little, if anything, of Holly’s interests or ambitions. As she appears in ‘A Hot Spell’ (the novel’s first long segment) she is deliberately set up to be a ‘typical’ fifteen-year-old girl, enamoured of the wrong boyfriend and looking for any excuse to cut loose from her parents. I found Mitchell’s realisation of the teenage mind unconvincing. He deliberately sets out to make Holly as ‘average’ as possible, scattering her speech with contractions and ‘causes, but his portrayal of her is inconsistent – he has Holly referencing Radio 4’s Thought for the Day at one point, and her stroppiness and decision to become a runaway feel like bolt-on elements, exercises in youthful alienation rather than the real deal. In contrast with the beautifully evoked, deeply felt ambience of Black Swan Green, the whole of this part one seems strangely flat, a recapitulation stripped of weight and personal investment. The checklist of references to contemporary politics and music has all the verisimilitude of stage decoration for a 1980s theme party. As the book progresses Holly becomes even less her own person, dragooned into action first as a winning waif pursued by an amoral serial seducer, then as the pissed-off partner of an obsessive war reporter (some of the dialogue that is given to Holly in that section is just awful) and as ‘mysterious other’ for a morally bankrupt author later on. We are asked to see Holly as ‘special’ – yet aside from the fact that she hears voices, we know nothing about her specialness, because we know next to nothing about her. We are interested in her because our attention is caught by the way she keeps cropping up throughout the book – but shorn of the forward momentum granted to her by the plot, there is remarkably little substance to Holly Sykes. She is wooden throughout, a narrative placeholder. When you consider the wonderful characterisation we saw in Cloud Atlas – the Sixsmith/Frobisher section contains some of the finest writing Mitchell has yet produced – and the brilliant portrayal of the teenager Jason in Black Swan Green, this is still more of a pity.

The most consistent character-building we find in The Bone Clocks comes in ‘Myrrh is Mine, its Bitter Perfume’ (the novel’s second segment) and ‘Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet’ (its fourth). The ‘hero’ of the former is Hugo Lamb, who gave a cameo appearance as Jason’s loathsome cousin in Black Swan Green and who appears here as an even more loathsome Cambridge undergraduate and amateur-soon-to-turn-professional sociopath. Hugo’s attitudes and behaviours are worse than vile, and he is brilliantly written. Equally so is Crispin Hershey, an embittered novelist who takes his revenge on a literary critic with appalling results. (In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mitchell insisted that the character of Hershey was not based on Martin Amis. Dessicated Embryos, he reminded us, was the title of a piano work by Erik Satie, not a backhanded reference to one of the younger Mr Amis’s early successes. But Red Monkey? Hal ‘The Hyena’ Grundy?? Come on.) Both Lamb’s portion of the narrative and Hershey’s are dynamic and vigorous, enlivened by moments of genuine comedy and, in Hershey’s case, pathos. A shame then that ‘The Wedding Bash’, part three of the novel and potentially just as interesting as the two sections that bookend it, turns out to be another misfire. Its protagonist Ed Brubeck was interesting in ‘A Hot Spell’ – intelligent, mature beyond his years and a bit of a loner, he came off the page far more forcefully than Holly. But when he reappears as a war journalist in ‘The Wedding Bash’, it seems to be for the sole purpose of expounding Mitchell’s views on Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that one disagrees with Ed’s views – indeed the section might have been a lot more interesting if one had – but that they would appear to have zero importance to or impact on the novel as it progresses. I initially believed that Mitchell was playing a long game, that he would be bound to link this realworld war in some ingenious way with the ‘secret history’ that is revealed two hundred pages later. As it turns out, no – Ed Brubeck is just the author having a go at Tony Blair. Not a bad thing in itself, but not relevant to the story either.

Which brings us to the crux of this novel, or its downfall, depending on your point of view. In ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’, part five of the novel and its longest section, we learn that Holly has been a pawn in a larger game all along, a centuries-long battle between two opposing groups of immortals, the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the soul-sucking baddies). It is these meddlesome demigods who variously ‘stole’ Holly’s brother, co-opted her lover to the dark side, helped her to find her missing daughter and plagued her with invisible voices from the age of seven. Now is the time of final reckoning, a fight to the death between the Blind Cathar and his Forces of Evil and our plucky band of Scoobies, outmanned in numbers but not in moral strength.

Where do we even start?? In his review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood stated the following:

As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant.

I earlier wrote a lengthy criticism of Wood’s essay, because it seemed and still seems to me that to equate ‘the human activity’ solely with the realist mode is to denigrate a mode of literature – the fantastic – whilst remaining ignorant of its capabilities. I stand by that assertion, and would go further in saying that Wood’s main purpose in this essay seems to lie in using The Bone Clocks as a proof of the inherent crapness of speculative fiction generally. I think he’s got it the wrong way round – one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.

It is the imbalance that is so embarrassing, the use of the kind of broad brush gestures and clichéd dialogue that would and should not be taken seriously in any literary context. Contrary to what Wood says in his review, the best speculative fiction works precisely because the writer sees no inherent difference, in fictional terms, between the quotidian realm and the fantastical, and approaches the writing of each – characterisation, sense of place, the use of language – with equal care and weight. In terms of a story’s seriousness, whether the ‘human case’ to be examined resides in a fictional Glasgow or a fictional Gormenghast should be of little importance. Mitchell himself clearly understands this – even if some of the science fiction in Cloud Atlas feels a little clunky, there can be no doubt that Mitchell fought hard for the soul of that book and won. The central SFnal sections feel as integral to the whole as the outer, realworld sections, and in formal as well as plot terms each thread of the story leads logically and elegantly from one to the next. In ambition and execution, Cloud Atlas as a novel project more than measures up to Mitchell’s formidable talent as a storyteller.

Why then is ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’ so rife with genre cliché – decades-old genre cliché at that? Why does Hugo Lamb, so brilliantly realised in part two, reappear speaking like a badly-written Bond villain in part five? Why does Holly suddenly start bellowing about FAHMLY in upper case? I sought desperately for some ironical, authorial awareness of just how ham-fisted this section is, but failed to find it. It felt like being trapped in a particularly dreadful episode of Doctor Who.

The sixth section, ‘Sheep’s Head’, is not much better. We’re into science fiction territory now, so of course everyone starts capitalising their nouns: Convoy, Cordon, Village. Then someone says: ‘There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling, I’ve met it before’ (p542), the Chinese are blamed for slaughtering the last elephant herds for the luxury goods market, and Holly wonders what it’s going to be like for her granddaughter Lorelei, being raped by born-again Christians and forced into servitude in some even-worse version of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s eventual denouement is so lazy and so – I hate to use the word of a writer like Mitchell – trite it barely merits discussion. One reader review I happened upon suggested that the Horologists are ciphers for writers, that the novel’s ending is a wishful rewriting of ‘the Script’. This could have been an interesting idea, but there is little evidence that this is what Mitchell intended, and if it is, then he has fumbled the execution so badly that it scarcely matters. Ian McEwan performed that trick better at the end of Atonement, and I say that as someone not keen on praising McEwan at the best of times.

I think the best word to describe my feelings about The Bone Clocks is baffled. Here we have six loosely linked novellas struggling to find a core narrative. Here we have a use of genre tropes so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy. What is Mitchell trying to tell us here, what was he trying to do? Was it simply that he struggled with this book for so long that it finally overmastered him? I can empathise with that situation, one-hundred percent. But no amount of fellow feeling, or admiration for the talent that still bursts suddenly and unexpectedly to life in parts of even this book, will prevent The Bone Clocks from being anything other than a baggy, directionless mess.

I fully expected to love The Bone Clocks. I thought this might be the year Mitchell won the Booker. I came away thinking that he’d have to pull something pretty special out of the bag to make me trust him again. Howard Jacobson’s J was another matter entirely. Jacobson is one of those writers whose flagrant self-regard seems so unwieldy it is almost comedic. I went into the book assuming I would hate it, that it would be both useless at being SF and so up itself as to be more or less unreadable. I was prepared for almost anything but what I actually found: a work that is unlike anything else I have ever read, a book that has nothing do to with science fiction but that is nonetheless fascinating in the way it approaches speculative materials, a novel that will remain with me long after the discussion of the current Booker Prize shortlist is over and no matter what the result.

J has been widely described as a dystopia, bearing comparison with classics of the subgenre such as 1984 and Brave New World. I personally think this is misleading, and anyone picking up J expecting a gory slice of police brutality and the perils of being a subversive in an authoritarian State with a capital S is going to find him or herself confounded almost immediately. No doubt there will be complaints in some quarters – indeed I’ve already encountered a few – that Jacobson shows no interest in what I would reluctantly describe as worldbuilding, in constructing a quid pro quo equivalent of a fully realised dystopian universe complete with depleted landscapes, alternate technologies and carefully delineated chart of alternate history. I would argue that Jacobson’s scattershot attempts at worldbuilding – there is a thing called a utility phone that will only accept local calls, the internet has been deconstructed or abolished, the names of places and people have been rearranged – are kept deliberately vague, because worldbuilding was the last thing on Jacobson’s mind (he has probably not even heard of the concept and would doubtless sneer at it if he had). Unlike other mainstream dabblers, Jacobson does not fail at science fiction, because he wasn’t trying to write science fiction in the first place. Where mainstream writers trying their hands at SF so often go wrong is in concentrating so hard on reconstructing what has already been done that they lose control of the central thrust of their idea – or else discover that they never had one (see above). The resulting texts often feel pallid, an emotional or intellectual void. Gutless. Once the second hand trappings of dystopia or post-apocalypse or whatever have been stripped away, there is nothing to see. Jacobson has provided us with something to see, a thought-experiment so effective and so original that there is only one way to read this book: forget SF, forget dystopia, forget any preconceived ideas you might have about Jacobson and read the book for what it is.

In steep contrast with The Bone Clocks, J is not an easy reading experience. I don’t just mean the content, I mean the style, which is terse, undramatic, frequently wordy, sometimes opaque. It is, as they say, hard to get into. But if there is a secret to reading J, it is not to try to get into it, but instead to let it get into you. Let it possess you. See what happens. Although evasion – not saying things, not clarifying, not noticing – forms the very fabric of J, the novel is not in the end evasive, and its central characters, though rendered elliptically in muted tones and without any of Mitchell’s gestural verismo, become insistent in their reality, terrifying in their vulnerability. They linger in the mind. In the very best sense of the word they are durable. For all Jacobson’s reticence in revealing her, Ailinn Solomons turns out to be just about a hundred times more convincing and important than Holly Sykes.

Another misconception about J is that it is ‘about’ the Nazi Holocaust. Although the fictional event at the centre of the novel – referred to throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED – concerns the massacre of Jews, Jacobson has said in interview that J is not about antisemitism or the Holocaust specifically:

The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.

To ‘write what he knows’ has been a sound decision for Jacobson, because the sense of quietly determined, indeed passionate personal investment that permeates this text allows it to be transformed all the more forcibly into the universal. In essence, J is about all othering – scapegoating, politicised hatred, the corruption of a whole society by the sense that there are ‘some people’ who it is all right to ostracise, blame, dispose of because they don’t really belong, who are ‘not like us’. What J does most effectively is to deprive us of the ‘just obeying orders’ defence, as put forward by concentration camp functionaries and SS officers at Nuremberg. J shows us a society sanctimoniously in mourning for itself, even while the cells of resurgent hatreds – hatreds that have never in fact gone away – bubble like septic sores just beneath the surface. The atmosphere of unease, of dread – especially in the more openly fantastical ‘Necropolis’ section of the book, which reads like a half-remembered nightmare – is palpable. The complacency of individuals – the bland smiles, the bland music – becomes ever more chilling as the book progresses. In the end you realise – as our protagonist has suspected all along – that you are standing on ground that looked solid, but that has been fatally undermined and is about to collapse:

‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny…to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels… Plus zealotry. Never forget zealotry, that torch to the easily inflamed passions of the benighted and the cultured alike. What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation. We have been lulled by the great autocrat-driven genocides of the recent past into thinking that nothing of that enormity of madness can ever happen again, not anywhere, least of all here. And it’s true – nothing on such a scale probably ever will. But lower down the order of horrors, and answering a far more modest ambition, carnage can still be connived at – lesser bloodbaths, minor murders, butchery of more modest proportions.’ (J p 292)

In his New Yorker review, James Wood argues that the fantasy element of The Bone Clocks is so overbearing it renders its human protagonists impotent – in fact the central issue with Mitchell’s novel is that the fantasy element is actually meaningless, a paper tiger, a bit of cheap decoration pinned on to a story that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to do. The novel wears its fantasy on its sleeve like a row of brass buttons polished to mirror brightness but does nothing with it. The Bone Clocks is easy and often enjoyable to read, but when you ask yourself what it is about, you are forced to conclude: not a lot. By contrast, J takes those elements of speculative fiction that make it so versatile and so important – the idea of disjuncture, of discomfiture, of imagining – and fashions from them something that is both remarkable in terms of its concept and vital in terms of what it is saying. The novel is meticulously crafted, a concentrated amalgam of thought and emotion that entirely repays the effort of getting to grips with it. It is a resolute book, a tough book. Is it valuable as literature? Yes. Should Jacobson feel proud of what he has achieved here? Certainly.

I have been here before

My first encounter with J. B. Priestley’s time plays was in a 1983 BBC adaptation of his 1932 play Dangerous Corner, starring a young Daniel Day Lewis in the role of Gordon. The play explores what happens in two alternate versions of reality – one in which certain secrets happen to be revealed, the other in which the protagonists wisely keep them hidden. I was mesmerised by the play, by the idea of a ‘dangerous corner’, a moment where time splits in two with dangerous repercussions. I was sixteen years old. I hadn’t heard of J. B. Priestley and didn’t consciously remember him as the playwright, although the work itself remained with me in crystal clarity.

Two years later – at Christmas, if I remember correctly – I saw another TV adaptation of one of Priestley’s plays, the 1937 Time and the Conways this time, starring Claire Bloom as Mrs Conway, Phyllis Logan as Kay, a young Simon Shepherd as Robin and Simon Russell Beale, of all people, as a party guest. This play explored time in another way, giving characters a sobering and tragic glimpse of their own future. Two years after that I saw I Have Been Here Before on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. This third play, also premiered in 1937, explores the time-stacking phenomenon of deja vu.

Priestley’s time plays are seldom claimed for science fiction, yet they make bold and ingenious use of conceits that have become central tenets of science fiction literature. It would be difficult to overstate the cumulative effect these emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating works had upon me, and looking back on them now, their influence is obvious. Two nights ago I happened to hear – with great pleasure and some emotion – a radio adaptation of Dangerous Corner, starring Martin Jarvis as Robert and first broadcast in 1984. The character upon whom events turn – and yet who never appears on stage – is called Martin. As the other characters recount their memories of him, and of exactly what happened at his house one night the year before, we learn that their versions of Martin are so at odds with one another that they might as well each be describing a different man.

When I wrote the stories that make up my story cycle The Silver Wind, I was not consciously thinking about Dangerous Corner, or indeed any of Priestley’s time plays. But it seems clear to me now that they were an abiding inspiration, nonetheless. I still feel moved and excited when I think about these extraordinary works, and my own memories of first encountering them will always remain precious. I have no doubt that to anyone coming to them now, Priestley’s time plays might seem dated, especially in the adaptations I’ve mentioned, complete with BBC accents and Anglo-Saxon attitudes. But these plays are getting on for a hundred years old. They’ve worn pretty well, considering, and in their intellectual curiosity and human emotion they remain timeless.

Who’s Bookered?

The 2014 Man Booker shortlist has just been announced:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

J – Howard Jacobson

The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

At first sight, I would say a lot of horse-trading has been going on here. There seems no overall form to this shortlist, no statement, no ideology, no plan. It’s a mixed bag of the judges’ personal favourites. What it says more than anything else is: ‘Here are some books we liked – please take one.’ A bit like this year’s Clarke shortlist, in fact. Disappointing.

The only book I’m unequivocally delighted to see on this list is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I hope it goes on to win. Ali Smith is one of the most important and interesting writers working today. She’s never afraid to experiment, but she’s never afraid to be readable, either. She’s interested in story, in delivering words that people want to read – but she’s also deeply immersed in literature, as a project, as a vocation, as an ongoing and evolving commitment. Go, Ali!

I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised to see David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks miss out on a shortlist place. I think it’s a book that would have split the jury down the middle, and thus it fell through the gap. I very much wanted to see it on the shortlist, for all kinds of reasons – but I didn’t think it should win. I intend to write more about why in the near future.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been one of my favourite books of the year so far – but I think Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World goes further and deeper and would have made more of an impact on this shortlist. The Blazing World is the kind of book you would find yourself wanting to read again and again and getting more from it each time, and I’m not sure that We Are All Completely… is. So Fowler’s inclusion is a win one, lose one situation for me.

I’ve not read Howard Jacobson’s J yet, but Chris has. He finished it just the other night and did not like it at all. I told him I’d read it to keep him company if it made the shortlist, and so that’s the book I’ll be tackling next. My guess is that I’m going to find it far more interesting to compare Mitchell’s approach to SFF with Jacobson’s than to bother with trying to pick the eventual winner from the actual Man Booker goodie bag. So it goes.

Wood for the trees

“Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more.The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

So argues critic James Wood, in his review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for The New Yorker.  I must begin by saying that I have not yet read The Bone Clocks, though my copy is on its way to me as I write, but I felt I had to say something about Wood’s piece, not so much because I feel he completely misunderstands what Mitchell is about (though this is true, and reading his review put me in mind of those Punt and Dennis sketches about the embarrassing dad) but because it reveals so much about the way he, together with most of the über-critics of today (John Mullan comes to mind) so regularly misunderstand and disparage not just science fiction and fantasy but any narrative mode that does not conform to their preconceived notions of how fiction has to behave in order to be considered serious. In this article alone, Wood points to ‘weightless fantasy’ and the ‘demented intricacies of science fiction’ as salient devaluing characteristics of Mitchell’s novel, and by extension all fiction by contemporary writers who employ speculative elements or alternative modes of narration as an integral part of their work:

“As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant.”

I felt embarrassed to read this, and sad, and angry.  Because even if you’d never come across any of Wood’s essays before, you’d know just from these few lines that he’s one of those critics who will happily ‘allow’ for the validity of speculative materials where the authors in question are safely dead, buried, and readily assimilable into the Oxbridge canon – Beowulf, Homer, Shelley, Bronte, Le Fanu, Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, Wyndham, Golding, Ballard and even up to and including the happily-still-living Susan Cooper – and yet who seem not just to misinterpret but actually to fear – the barbarians are at the gate! – contemporary innovations and experiments in genre, form and diversity among today’s writers. The only valid use of the fantastic in literature today, Wood argues, is in fiction aimed at children. (You might remember that Kate Saunders made a similar pronouncement in her patronising and sexist profile of Eleanor Catton for The Times last year.)

Wood cites Ford Madox Ford as the supreme ‘investigator of the human case’, and well he might. Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the novels that gets cited everywhere, both in newspaper features as one of those ‘100 books to read before you die’, and by other writers as the supreme example of ‘the perfect novel’, the kind of book you find yourself coming back to again and again. I wouldn’t argue with any of that. I first read The Good Soldier about three years ago – I missed it when I was at uni, and then found myself forever putting it off, plagued by that resistance one instinctively feels towards books that people are always telling you you ‘simply must’ read. When I finally got down to it I was hooked more or less immediately. The story on the surface is a predictable bit of soap opera – a tale of wife-swapping and moral degeneracy involving upper class types perambulating around Europe for the sake of their health – but Ford’s use of techniques that were then very new (a discursive, time-jumping narrative, a supremely unreliable narrator), the subversion of the novel’s restrained, nostalgic tone by the passion and violence of the events described, together with the perfectly crafted elegance of the writing itself make this novel something very special in terms of what it is (a modern novel), when it was written (on the eve of WW1) and what it represents (the shattering of an era and a worldview). Please note also, James Wood, that one of the chief pleasures of The Good Soldier is its almost addictive readability.  This was one of those rare novels (when you’re a writer they become increasingly rare) that I lost myself in to such an extent that I forgot all about the writer, and what he was doing, and how well he’d succeeded – I just wanted to know what happened, dammit.

So I’m not coming here to dis Ford, or his transatlantic literary inheritors Franzen and DeLillo and Eugenides and Yates. (There is no writer on this side of the Atlantic currently working who is as incisive and insightful in this particular sphere – Barnes and McEwan, for example, are parochial doodlers by comparison with the writers above, a fact that Wood as well as Ford might find ironic.) The novel, so long not-dead, is so perennial and so various and so inclusive that there will always be room and reason for novels like The Good Soldier and The Corrections. But to imply, as Wood does, firstly that good storytelling must come at the expense of ‘meaning’, and secondly that the very diversity of the novel today has detrimentally affected the pursuit of ‘the profoundly serious’, is to my mind both incorrect and dangerously limiting.

At one point in his review, Wood laments that David Mitchell’s previous novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ‘begins as a formidably achieved historical novel but gradually turns into something out of Japanese anime’. Once again, a cursory disparagement of a whole mode of storytelling (and I would be willing to bet that Wood knows even less about Japanese anime than he knows about science fiction) and a complete absence of interest in what Mitchell might actually be doing or saying with his employment of this kind of imagery and interweaving of styles. If Mitchell is capable of such ‘formidable achievement’ by Wood’s mark, surely his decision to subvert the recognisably realistic aspects of his narrative by the playing them off against more fantastical conceits comes down to more than literary naivete or unhappy accident? So much for serious investigation.

What is it about science fiction that so terrifies critics like Wood? The key, I think, lies in what he says here:

The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, in pleasingly familiar territory. We are in the provincial England of Black Swan Green—a world of possessive lower-middle-class parents, bad English cars, inventive slang, and terrific music.”

Wood is comfortable with these things, because he knows what’s going on. It is only when things ‘quickly get peculiar’ that he feels less certain of what is going on, and therefore less comfortable. Note the coupling of the adverb ‘pleasingly’ with the adjective ‘familiar’. For critics like Wood, it is always going to be that familiarity – that sense of being on home ground, and therefore at an advantage – that is pleasing, just as the sense of being plunged into the ‘peculiar’ – i.e any milieu that is not immediately assimilable by them – is disconcerting and therefore ‘weightless’.

It would appear that science fiction and the literature of the fantastic can leave some critics feeling as if they have been divested of their intellectual armoury. Unused to the terrain, they flounder – does she really mean this literally, or is it a metaphor??? Unused to being inexpert, they reject. For critics such as these, it is safer to reject the unaccustomed as not-serious, because they know serious, and this isn’t it. It is interesting to note that Wood is perfectly comfortable with the idea of creative speculation when it fits his own remit – he happily asserts, for example, that the fact that ‘[the protagonists’] freedom is itself fictional is an unimportant paradox, just part of the everyday novelistic contract’ – yet is contemptuously dismissive of ‘unreality’ when it is employed in the service of ideas he has not learned the vocabulary for, or by a writer he does not deem worthy of serious consideration.

Novel means new, and luckily for all those who love books, the novel today is still as new as the day it was born. Novelists who interest themselves in human affairs should and will continually seek out new ways of exploring, expressing, and yes, seriously investigating the diverse experiences of reality that exist. Is David Mitchell’s investigation in The Bone Clocks less worthy of attention than Martin Amis’s in his also-recently-published novel The Zone of Interest, simply because Mitchell’s iconography of evil is an imaginative construct, whereas in his use of the persons and symbols of Nazi Germany Amis has chosen to co-opt an iconography of evil that is already familiar to us? Amis takes less risk, certainly. (Whether his motives are more questionable is a matter that lies beyond the scope of this essay.) Similarly with the DVD box sets, graphic novels and RPGs that Wood so disparages. I cannot help feeling that Wood is rejecting these modes of discourse not because he has tried them and found them wanting, but because he believes they threaten the intrinsic seriousness of what is aesthetically worthy and allowable in his version of reality. Because they are unfamiliar, in other words. For Wood, aesthetic worth is mostly about shoring up a set of values he takes to be objective. In fact they are learned, a set of received opinions. Some of them may be good opinions, but if Wood is afraid to test them against other modes of expression, how will he know?

Almost exactly a century after the publication of The Good Soldier, we are living in a world Ford would barely recognise, a world both smaller and larger, more monolithic and more diverse. The anxieties we face are practical as well as internal. For writers wishing to interrogate those anxieties, it is vital and natural that we diversify our sources, our inspirations, and our ways of seeing. We may draw inspiration from Ford, not just because he wrote a great novel but because he was doing in his time what we should be doing in ours: pushing the boundaries. But as a profoundly serious investigation into the human case, it should be more or less impossible for a writer today to write a novel that examines the world in quite the same way that The Good Soldier does. Not, whatever Wood might think, because Ford’s level of technique is sadly lost to us barbarians, but because the world as Ford experienced it and thought about it is off-kilter in so many ways, wrong-headed, misinformed, gone. The kind of critic that bemoans the passing of such an aesthetic is all too often of the same stripe as those who used annually to complain about the increasing proliferation of novels by ‘un-English’ writers on the Booker shortlist.

The job of the writer should surely be more than the simple transcribing of what is already known. What we know is our raw material, to be warped, transported, alchemically altered into what we imagine. It is in the nature of science fiction above all to recognise that what we take for normality today could differ radically from might happen tomorrow, that even as we fumble towards it, reality eludes us. It is the most supple and adaptable of literatures and, it could be argued, there is none more perfectly suited to the serious investigation of the spaces – mental and physical, personal and public, inner and outer – we find ourselves inhabiting today.

In any case, there are more places to contemplate the world from than through a Harvard window.

The Race is in the Box!

Exciting news! The guys over at Upcoming4me have just announced the first selection of titles to be included in their new annual ‘Book Box’ prize, a personal Year’s Best chosen from the books they’ve been reviewing over the past twelve months. It’s a fascinating list, and I’m delighted to see The Race in amongst it.  The winner will be announced this Friday.

Upcoming4me’s review of The Race is here, and the Story Behind The Race, a short piece I wrote detailing some of the inspirations behind the novel, is here.