Monthly Archives: December 2014

A new year, a new Europe…

His life had been erased like his books, set alight, reduced to ash and scattered. It no longer existed. But then, all lives were ultimately extinguished,  and in their passing nothing remained of the person who’d been – their dreams, their thoughts, who they loved, what they’d hated – from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon and down the ages to Jews.

Yet Shomer lives still.

(A Man Lies Dreaming p79) amld.ltidhar

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. In terms of both content and form that novel presents a bold statement, and its recognition in the World Fantasy Awards was the ‘yes!’ vote of its year. I was less fond of Tidhar’s follow-up, The Violent Century. Unlike some others, I found no problem with the author’s decision to eschew speech marks, and the terse rhythms of the narrative, styled to mimic the speech bubbles of a graphic novel, worked fine by me. It was the narrative itself that never won me over. Twentieth-century history with added superheroes? The Bond-style plot is paper thin, the bolt-on romance seriously unconvincing. As a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, Nick Harkaway’s more recent Tigerman, for me at least, does a far more interesting job.

Tidhar’s latest novel, A Man Lies Dreaming displays not only a return to form but a solid improvement. This is a brave book. Any writer as intelligent as Tidhar will be well aware of the near-impossibility and inherent foolhardiness of taking on a subject of the magnitude and gravitas of the Nazi holocaust as a material for fiction. So many have been there before him. Some have flailed around embarrassingly, others have exploited shamefully, a few have succeeded in increasing the sum of the world’s literature with grace and fervour. That Tidhar dares to go there is one thing. That he has managed to create a work that is original, and funny, and angry, and moving, and significant, beautiful even – these are achievements he should be proud of. Bravo.

Shomer, a Jew, a father, a writer of pulp fictions, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. He imagines a reality in which the communists won the 1933 elections, in which Hitler was expelled from Germany and forced to make his living as Wolf, a private detective in a London populated by his erstwhile comrades, all now similarly reduced in circumstance, scraping along the best they can, reviled as immigrants by Oswald Mosley’s ascendant Blackshirts.

Wolf’s farcical exploits and sexual misadventures are the stuff of pulp fiction – Shomer’s pulp fiction. It’s all very funny and very repulsive at the same time. But there’s more to it than that.  The alternate history in A Man Lies Dreaming kept reminding me of the real history in Menno Meyjes’s 2002 film Max, in  which John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a wealthy Viennese art dealer who feels a strange comradeship with the disaffected war veteran Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). This 1919 Hitler is history in embryo, an embittered ex-corporal still torn between his former yearning to be an artist and his newly found visibility on the political stage. Max shows us a glimpse of what might have been, a turning point in history where had circumstances been minutely otherwise, Hitler might have remained what he was at the time: a nonentity with pretensions.

He had begun to perceive the great conspiracy behind all things; perhaps even then, so early, he knew it was his destiny to fight it; and yet, in the final tally, he had lost. The Fall had made a mockery of Wolf. Imagine if he had succeeded, if Germany was his, its military and its citizens, to wield as he saw fit: what would have happened to the Jewish people then?

(A Man Lies Dreaming p 99)

And of course we as readers, living in the alternate world of Shomer’s imagination, know the answer to that question all too well.

The way Tidhar tackles his subject – linking it with contemporary issues such as American expediency politics, the casual (and not so casual) racism that continues to permeate British political culture, demonstrates how it is still not only possible but necessary for us to keep writing about the Nazi holocaust, that this task can still be accomplished with impact and originality and (perhaps most difficult of all) personal commitment. As Howard Jacobson does, rather differently, in his meta-dystopia J, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming shows us the holocaust as part of a historical continuum. It is not over, it is certainly not nearly enough to speak of it in hushed tones and then promptly forget about it. Given the airtime currently being lavished upon certain would-be members of parliament in our midst, the material relating to Oswald Mosley’s theoretical election victory near the end is particularly hard to read:

‘[Communism] has flooded our country with refugees. We have opened our borders, our arms, our homes to them, in friendship. And they came, in their thousands, in their thousands of thousands. Our cities reek of their cabbage! Their children speak foreign tongues in our schools. They are draining our country of its resources, they are taking the very bread from our own people’s mouths!’ (p238)

Tidhar’s novel also shares with Jacobson’s J the sense of being not just an exercise in possibility but a deeply personal, deeply committed statement by the author. This is what drives the book beyond mere cleverness and towards significance. (There is information relevant to this in the Historical Note at the end, but it is important to note that the novel stands perfectly well without it.)

And it is precisely because Tidhar has such fluent command of the non-fiction behind his fiction that he is able to play with it, to bend it so successfully into such bizarre shapes. There are hundreds of jokes in here – asides, quotes, comments, unmaskings, language-plays, amusing truisms about writing, there’s even an Elder Gods reference in amongst it all – the kind of tricks that only a writer who has fully assimilated their source material could pull off. As with any successful meta-text of this type, it is so soundly constructed as story that a reader who is less familiar with the history, politics or cultural background will be able to enjoy this novel perfectly well without having to consult a history book at every other page. For those who come to it more fully prepared, it will be a tour de force of ferocious ingenuity. It is also worth noting how splendid this book is as science fiction, and as a subversion of science fiction. Here again Tidhar knows his stuff, and lets it sing:

Eleven, old Ben struck, and the second stretched and stretched and in its expectant silence Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz Lang: huge shining buildings rose amidst the squalor of old London, by London Bridge a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pierced the sky. From the City of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala. This city of the future was brighter, brasher, awash in an electric glow which faded as he watched, the ghostly outline of this futuristic could-have-been slowly washing away. Wolf held his breath and Big Ben tolled, twelve, and one day ended, and a new day began. (p237)

I was worried when I first started reading that A Man Lies Dreaming was going to be too much like Osama, that in redrafting some of the narrative assumptions and stylistic techniques of the earlier novel, Tidhar was going to run the risk of making his own highly successful innovations look old hat. As I progressed through the novel I was relieved to find those apprehensions to be misplaced. Yes, A Man Lies Dreaming draws on the repertoire of techniques that laid the foundations in Osama, but it expands upon them, too – there’s a load of new stuff here, and a new fluency.  Tidhar isn’t just trying his strength any more – he’s grown into a mature writer who knows what he’s doing and why he is doing it. This is a good book. It deserves to be talked about, and Tidhar deserves to be praised.


autumn.hutchinsonFollow that, Dave Hutchinson! Remarkably, he does. If A Man Lies Dreaming hides its artifice behind the facade of our recent past, Europe in Autumn revolves around the lodestone of our possible future. If Tidhar knows his stuff, then so does Hutchinson. I have rarely seen the ambience of middle and Eastern Europe more succinctly and accurately captured by a British writer. This isn’t your usual kind of mitteleuropaeische Wehmut, though, this is a post-Soviet Europe, ravaged by stag weekends and fin-de-siecle exhaustion.  It’s superbly realised, with almost Scandinavian levels of deep irony and an economy of style that I (as a writer who tends to obsess over minutiae) found laudable and convincing. No fuss, no fannying about, just seriously good writing.

In a near-future Europe disenchanted with Schengen and fractured into a profusion of micro-states (each with its own hyper-evolved bureaucracy), Rudi is a chef minding his own business. How he manages to get co-opted into a secret pan-European organisation of spies and information traffickers is a mystery even to him. But there are bigger mysteries in store, and Rudi’s life will soon be in danger – as will the life of anyone associated with him…

To pigeon-hole this fabulous, tightly constructed, expertly wrought little masterpiece of science fiction merely as a spy caper would be to do it a serious injustice – yet the spy caper stuff is great, too. Funnier than James Bond, written with a level of literary understanding and invention that far surpasses anything muddled together by John Le Carre, Europe in Autumn is massively entertaining. It’s also the kind of SF one longs to see more of, the speculative materials used not merely as ornament but as backbone, handled with the lightness of touch that signals a continuing serious engagement and long, fond familiarity. I adored the reveal, the core concept. I’m not normally one for sequels, but I can understand how Europe in Autumn almost demands one.

Both these books are a joy to read, the kind that serve as markers along the road of SF’s great journey. Recommended.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

The successful ghost story puts the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’

M. R. James


What is it with the British and their Christmas ghost stories? Despite resurgence in its popularity here in recent years, the Americans still do Hallowe’en better than us. Come midwinter though we are in our element. The idea that Christmas – and Christmas Eve in particular – should be the perfect time for gathering around the fire and taking it in turns to terrify the assembled company with ghoulish anecdotes seems so deeply rooted in British culture that it’s difficult to pin down exactly where it came from.

The most famous exponent of the tradition has to be M. R. James, the Cambridge don and antiquarian scholar who developed a passion for ghost stories and started writing his own to amuse himself and entertain his friends. It wasn’t long before his Christmas Eve readings – enlivened by some enthusiastic acting – became a highlight of the Cambridge year. The stories themselves are now seen as the mother-lode of English weird fiction, the standard by which all ghost writers since have been judged and often found wanting. M. R. James even had an adjective named after him: Jamesian, a word often used to describe a story characterised by an unsettling atmosphere of understated menace.

The Christmas ghost story didn’t start with M. R. James, though. His American namesake Henry James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, a full thirty years before the first publication of Montagu James’sCollected Ghost Stories. Henry James may have hailed from New York City, but he was an Anglophile at heart and eventually became a British citizen. The Turn of the Screw could be said to be the quintessential English ghost story and has probably been adapted for radio and screen more times than any other piece of weird fiction. It tells the story of an English governess and her battle to save her young charges from two particularly nasty apparitions. But the tale begins with a group of friends, gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve, telling each other ghost stories.

In other words, this business has been going on for centuries. There are those who insist it was Charles Dickens who started it all with his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who first appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Personally, I doubt it. Christmas is an odd time of year. There’s nothing like the claustrophobia of enforced jollity to bring a family feud bubbling to the surface, and the staff on duty at police stations and hospitals over the festive season will tell you that there are more murders, drunken brawls and relationship breakdowns at Christmas than at any other time of year. What else can you expect when people who don’t normally see each other from one end of the year to the next are shut up together for days on end with nothing to keep them from each others’ throats but the Queen’s Speech and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special?

The whole baby Jesus business is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in festival terms, anyway, and entirely the invention of the clerics. Before the Christian church got involved the traditional end-of-year junket used to be pagan, a kind of midwinter bacchanalia designed to deflect the Grim Reaper from his seasonal rounds. Could it be that our darker midwinter yearnings are actually a modern echo of this ancient custom? It’s interesting when you think about it: the very things that can make Christmas difficult – the cold, the dark, the glacial passage of time – are often dwelled upon in Christmas ghost stories and turned to creative advantage. Certainly the one thing that unites all members of a family, regardless of their age, gender or propensity to eat turkey, is the love of a good ghost story.

Weird fiction is a weird business, and it’s always fun to speculate about exactly where it came from and exactly why it does what it does. You won’t be surprised to learn that I love ghost stories, and that one of the things I still look forward to about Christmas is the wealth of ghost-related entertainment that’s usually on offer. I can’t remember precisely how old I was when I first discovered that along with the pigs-in-blankets and chestnut stuffing, Christmas also offered a televisual feast of ghoultide delicacies; I do know that no one else got so much as a glance at the special double issue of the Radio Times until I completed my investigations into what ghosts were haunting the schedules and when.

One has to get one’s seasonal priorities in order, and if any is more pressing than making sure The Hauntingisn’t going to clash with The Innocents I haven’t discovered it.

One thing you can say about the Christmas spirits: they tend to be a better class of ghost; if it’s vampires and werewolves you’re after, you’d better try Hallowe’en. When in 2002 the BBC commissioned a series entitledGhost Stories for Christmas, the format couldn’t have been simpler or more classic: Christopher Lee, seated in an armchair before an open fire, reading selections from M. R. James by the light of a guttering candle and not a staking or decapitation in sight. What’s more, it was a huge success. What the British have come to expect from their Christmas ghost stories is not buckets of blood but that indefinable frisson of Jamesian terror: footsteps in the snow, the wind moaning in the chimney, lamplight in an upstairs window. At the time M. R. James wrote them, his ghost stories were remarkable for featuring contemporary protagonists in modern settings. It is only with the passing of time that we have come to see them as deliciously romantic: the solitary professor, monk-like in his rooms, unwisely delving into arcane matters that would generally be best left alone… The haunted mezzotint, the copperplate handwriting on yellowed parchment, the repression of all rages and lusts behind a mask of punctilious Englishness – what most characterises the Christmas ghost story is an air of nostalgia.

In other words, we prefer our yuletide hauntings to be retro, with long shadows, and preferably in black-and-white.

Of course, childhood itself casts a long shadow, and those things that delighted and terrified us when we were younger can sometimes appear lacklustre and even dull when we encounter them again as adults. While thinking about and reading for this article I inevitably began to recall those films that were special for me, special because I’d never seen anything like them before, and with that irresistible taste of the illicit because I was only allowed to watch them in the first place because it was Christmas. Would they, could they possibly stand the test of time, and the burden of emotion they had been prevailed upon to carry? The only way to find out was to see them again, a venture I undertook with some misgivings. The nights were longer in childhood, and the films weredefinitely scarier. I wasn’t sure I wanted that illusion to get debunked.

My first encounter with M. R. James came when I was about eleven, when I saw Jacques Tourneur’s film Night of the Demon as part of a Christmas double bill of scary movies. Night of the Demon was made in 1957, so I suppose to my concerned parents it seemed pretty safe. The movie it was paired with, Freddy Francis’s 1975 film The Ghoul, was another matter. It was in colour, for a start, and it went on until well after midnight. It was agreed that seeing as it was Christmas I could stay up and watch Night of the Demon just as long as I went to bed straight afterwards.

Never one to go down without a fight, I made a huge fuss about not being able to see Peter Cushing as the mad Egyptologist with a cannibal son locked in the attic (what’s not to like?) but the truth is I was glad to have a get-out clause. I saw the trailer for The Ghoul more than once in the run-up to Christmas, and the sequence showing Don Henderson’s bloodstained feet creeping down the attic stairs was in and of itself enough to give me nightmares. Night of the Demon, with its country-house setting and clipped bourgeois accents, did seem safer, and in a good way.

At any rate, I reckoned I could handle it.

I’d reckoned without the Jamesian influence. In his foreword to the 1924 anthology Ghosts and Marvels, MRJ makes no secret of his personal formula for a successful ghost story:

Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way. Let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

This is the very essence of ‘Casting the Runes’, the original MRJ story Night of the Demon was based on. In fact James doesn’t let you see the demon at all except as a lithographic illustration. Luckily for both film-lovers and weird fiction enthusiasts, Jacques Tourneur had both the sense and sensibility to similarly understate his case when he made Night of the Demon. I don’t think I properly appreciated the cleverness of the story at the time of that early first encounter, but I do know that the atmosphere of the film, the sense of the not-quite-seen, the insistently threatened, the horror just around the corner terrified and transfixed me long before the final revelatory sequence on the railway line.

I had fond, fond memories of this film, and when I viewed it again recently I was delighted to discover that Tourneur’s Night of the Demon lived up to every one of my recollections and even surpassed them. Dr John Holden, the classic Jamesian sceptic, is personified with dapper brilliance by Dana Andrews as he pursues his ill-advised scholarly enquiry into the nature of evil, and Peggy Cummins shows a lot more backbone than the average fifties heroine as Joanna Harrington, the niece of the demon’s first victim. The script, rich in the dramatic conventions of the day, is finely wrought, and the central message of the story – that it is impossible to outrun your fate once it has singled you out – is conveyed with conviction and evident enjoyment of the ideas at stake. There are some genuinely frightening moments. Night of the Demon is not just a good scary movie; it is a great film, full stop.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw the Ealing Studios movie Dead of Night. I know only that it was during the Christmas holidays, and that the ‘haunted mirror’ segment scared the bejesus out of me. I hadn’t read Borges then, and the story’s premise – that a mirror might be more than just a sheet of window glass silvered with mercury, that it might be the gateway to a world of nightmare – was new to me and horrifying.

I’m ashamed to say that perhaps because this one sequence had made such an impression on me I could barely recall what happened in the rest of the movie. The surprise when I saw it again was therefore all the more marvellous.

Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1945 film Dead of Night was the first of what came popularly to be known as ‘portmanteau’ horror films, movies that take the form of a set of shorter, separate stories-within-the-story linked together by a framing narrative. Portmanteau horror is most (in)famously exemplified in the films of Amicus Studios, makers of the late, great Asylum, but this fascinating little subgenre has proved something of an unquiet spirit, revived in 1993 with Necronomicon and still more recently in the super little triptychs of Asian horror, Three Extremes andThree Extremes 2Dead of Night though was the original, and in many ways it remains the best. This film is now getting on for seventy years old, yet I was thrilled by its freshness, its vigour, its deft touches of modernism and ironic sense of humour. The movie looks superb, and showcases some fine acting, that of the young Michael Redgrave in particular. His portrait of a man on the edge of madness in the ‘ventriloquist’s dummy’ sequence is 24 carat.

One of the nicest things about Dead of Night is that as well as being a masterpiece of British cinema it is an archetypical reformatting of the classic Christmas ghost story. Here we have a group of friends, comfortably ensconced in the elegant drawing room of an English country house, telling each other scary stories as they attempt to unmask the secrets of the supernatural. A stranger arrives with the warning that they are all in danger, while a professional sceptic – Frederick Valk as redoubtable psychiatrist Dr van Straaten – seeks to reassure them of the omnipotence of science.

It seems curiously in keeping with the spirit of Christmas that its ghost stories often have a philosophical slant: do ghosts exist, is there life after death, is it possible to predict the future? There is almost as much talking as action in Dead of Night, a characteristic that is, once again, typically Jamesian.

The British are famous for their love of tradition, and woe betide those foolish enough to try messing with it. Christmas especially is a time when repetition tends to dominate over innovation, and perhaps that is why, where scary movies are concerned, we tend to keep recycling old favourites instead of experimenting with contemporary adaptations. There’s nothing wrong with the old favourites – as we have seen, quite the opposite – but to close the door on a haunted house simply because it’s new and therefore different would be to fossilize the canon, which would be a tragedy. The modern reworking of The Turn of the Screw screened for Christmas 2009 came under fire for being too explicit in its handling of the subject of child abuse. While it’s true that some might have to read Henry James’s original novella two or three times before grasping the darker implications of the story, it is also true that the molestation of minors does form the central tenet of that story, and I would have thought that one of the chief advantages of living in the modern age is that we are more accustomed to artists who say what they mean. I myself thought Sandy Welch’s adapted screenplay was inventive and thought-provoking.

I was similarly impressed by the new adaptation of what is perhaps M. R. James’s most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, commissioned by the BBC for Christmas 2010.  Whistle and I’ll Come to You was scripted by Neil Cross, who worked on the BBC TV MI5 drama series Spooks, and directed by Andy de Emony, who also directed the two classic Red Dwarf episodes ‘Rimmerworld’ and ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’. It upset a lot of devout Jamesians, mainly because it deviated rather substantially from the original text. There are more characters, for a start. You don’t find many women in M. R. James stories (it’s easy to forget that women were not made full members of Cambridge University until 1947, and MRJ’s college did not admit women until the 1970s) but Cross’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You gave Gemma Jones a central role as Alice, wife to John Hurt’s melancholic Professor Parkin and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this adaptation is that it gives its protagonist, James Parkin, a proper backstory. MRJ’s professors tend to exist in monastic seclusion. We cannot imagine them having families or sex lives, and the most interesting thing about them is their talent for stirring up ghosts. Hurt’s Parkin is a man with a past, grieving the loss of his life’s companion and racked by guilt for having to put her in a nursing home. The ghosts he stirs up are as much his own demons as the disembodied wraiths that, if we are to believe Monty James at least, are worryingly common along Parkin’s particular stretch of the Suffolk coast. The terror he experiences is all the more appalling for having its roots in Parkin’s personal reality.

I read the reviews of de Emony’s film with interest. I was delighted at the continuing passion expressed by so many viewers for the work of MRJ and for the tradition of the Christmas ghost story in general. But I have to say I had little sympathy for their proprietary insistence on textual rigidity. It’s important to remember that even the most controversial adaptation is just that: an adaptation, and does not affect the integrity of the original in the slightest. James’s stories never set out to be comfortable, and I found Neil Cross’s reworking to be beautifully imaginative, genuinely frightening (watch out for the bit when Alice’s hands come under the door!) and replete with a sense of elegiac Englishness that made it a truly satisfying dramatic experience. What I thought it proved – and far more convincingly than Jonathan Miller’s stiflingly dull 1968 adaptation of the same story – was how versatile the English ghost story is, and how timeless. James’s story is more than a hundred years old now, yet it is as popular today as it always was and perhaps more so. The fact that a screenwriter might choose to reinterpret it for our own time rather than slavishly reconstructing it as a period drama is in my view a measure of the love and respect still felt for these stories within our literary culture. I think M. R. James himself would be pleased and intrigued, to see how his work has endured and expanded in our collective imagination.

But it’s time to stoke up the fire now, I think. Our guests will be arriving soon, and I feel certain one of them at least will have a story to tell…

Happy Christmas, everyone!


(This piece was originally written for and appeared at the Starburst magazine website, December 2011.)

Aickman’s Heirs

I’m delighted to announce that my brand new story ‘A Change of Scene’ will be featuring in the anthology Aickman’s Heirs, edited by the very talented Simon Strantzas and to be published in the spring by Undertow Press.


When Simon first emailed me to ask if I’d like to submit a story for an Aickman tribute anthology he was putting together, I was thrilled. I was also a touch nervous – if there’s one writer I would mark out as an inspiration in the canon of what you might call ‘classic weird’, that writer would be Robert Aickman, and his stories are perfect as they are. They need no comment, no postscript – they need only to be read. What could I possibly have to add? I approached with caution.

In the event, ‘A Change of Scene’ was one of those rare stories that came to me almost complete, more or less as soon as I started to think about what I might write. No story writes itself, and I for one always tend to think that getting the initial idea is the easy part – pinning the bugger down on paper is where the real work lies. Even so, I counted myself lucky this time around as the two main characters seemed to create the story as they went along, simply by talking and interacting with one another. (It turns out there was a lot of buried history to be uncovered.) And there was the added bonus of knowing pretty much from the start how I wanted things (pretty much) to end.  Insofar as any story can be fun to write, this one was – very. I hope readers enjoy it.

I scarcely need add that most of the groundwork had already been done for me, by Aickman himself. As any Aickman fan will immediately see, ‘A Change of Scene’ is closely inspired by a particular story of Aickman’s, a story that is and always will be very close to my heart because it was my first introduction to his work. I hope I’ve done him proud – and if not that, then I hope at least I’ve done enough to make him chuckle…

I feel fortunate to be a part of this anthology. The full (and very fine) table of contents for Aickman’s Heirs is below:


Nina Allan – “Change of Scene”

Nadia Bulkin – “Seven Minutes in Heaven”

Michael Cisco – “Infestations”

Malcolm Devlin – “Two Brothers”

Brian Evenson – “Seaside Town”

Richard Gavin – “Neithernor”

John Howard – “Least Light, Most Night”

John Langan – “Underground Economy”

Helen Marshall – “Vault of Heaven”

Daniel Mills – “The Lake”

David Nickle – “Camp”

Lynda E. Rucker – “Drying Season”

Lisa Tuttle – “The Book That Finds You”

D.P. Watt – “A Delicate Craft”

Michael Wehunt – “A Discreet Music”

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?



Mircon memories

Chris and I have just returned from Barcelona, where we spent the weekend as guests of Mircon, the 2014 Hispacon, which was held in the district of Montcada i Reixac, a short distance to the north of the city centre.

We had an amazing time. As with our trip to Aviles in 2013, we were made to feel incredibly welcome. The passion and commitment of the Spanish SF community is remarkable and inspiring. It was fantastic to see again some of the people we’d met on our previous visit, and we equally loved spending time with our fabulous fellow guests Karin Tidbeck and Aliette de Bodard. A highlight of the weekend for me was the panel I shared with Karin on New SF and New Weird. Another highlight was exploring the city of Barcelona itself – a stunning place, and instantly captivating, as all great cities are.

There are so many people to thank – Miguel and Gemma for taking care of the practicalities, Ian and Cristina for their conversation and comradeship as always, Angel Luis Sucasas for asking the questions (Angel interviewed me for El Pais back in July and it was wonderful to meet and talk with him in person), Carmen Torres and Laura Naranjo for their work in translating Maquinas del Tiempo (again, it was so lovely to meet them in person) and Sofia Rhei, for being there and for being amazing, and for making all this happen in the first place. I would like above all to thank Susana Arroyo and Silvia Schettin of Fata Libelli, and James and Marian Womack of Nevsky Prospects – you are fantastic people, and it is a privilege and a delight to work with you.

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

Anybody home..?

Anybody home..?


With James Womack on the New Weird panel

With James Womack on the New Weird panel

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women: wrap-up

One of the problems with many anthologies – and the reason, I guess, why people often admit to only dipping into them rather than reading them through from cover to cover as unified texts – is that of unevenness. You get a couple of truly standout stories, a turkey or two maybe, and a whole bunch of what you might call so-so stories, enjoyable enough at the time of reading but not all that memorable. My own pet peeve with anthologies is that they often lack cohesion. What you get is a kind of grab-bag of odds and ends, with no real sense that the stories belong together, or make a coherent statement as a group. For me, an anthology should say something – about the theme or title of the book, about the writers who’ve been gathered together. The individual pieces should be strong in themselves, but they should also add up to something. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women does all these things.

In her introduction to the anthology, editor Alex Dally MacFarlane states that she wanted to take a snapshot of where science fiction – and by implication, science fiction written by women – is at at the present moment, the multiplicity and variety of worlds it seeks to inhabit. For me, she has succeeded admirably. She has succeeded not only in reflecting the breadth and excellence of the work that is being done, but also in gathering together a group of stories that, through the interplay of their themes and internal resonances, form a statement that is striking in its coherence.

In terms of the individual stories, the anthology has an amazingly high strike rate. Of the thirty-three stories included, only one flat-out didn’t work for me, with very few weak spots amongst the others. As for standouts, there are so many memorable stories here that I’m having trouble picking my favourites, but just for the record and in no particular order, here they are:

1) ‘The Science of Herself’ by Karen Joy Fowler

2) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

3) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

4) ‘The Death of Sugar Daddy’ by Toiya Kristen Finley

5) ‘Enyo-Enyo’ by Kameron Hurley

6) ‘Valentines’ by Shira Lipkin

7) ‘Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities’ by Angelica Gorodischer

8) ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ by Catherynne M. Valente

This list could easily have been twice as long. Many of these stories will remain with me for a long time. As well as presenting me with work by writers I already know and admire, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women has highlighted the names of writers previously unknown to me whose work I shall definitely be seeking out in the future.  That is a marker of success all by itself.

Was there anything missing? Well, no anthology can contain everything, and every anthology must of necessity be shaped by the knowledge, ambition and personal taste of its editor – indeed that’s sort of the point. Given these caveats, I found the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women to be remarkably well balanced, containing, as per the old adage, something for everyone, pretty much. Looking back down the table of contents, it occurs to me that the anthology is a little short on hard SF. The single hard SF story contained here – Natalia Theodoridou’s ‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ – is admittedly excellent, and highly original, but I do feel the anthology could have benefited from a little more hard SF input – off the top of my head, Linda Nagata, Madeleine Ashby and Tricia Sullivan spring instantly to mind as writers working in this particular area. Something else that strikes me is the shortage of British contributions. Of thirty-three writers, we have only one British (Tori Truslow) and one British-based (Zen Cho) writer on the slate. Given the high proportion of American and US-based writers represented, it would not have hurt to have a story by Gwyneth Jones, say, or Mary Gentle in the mix.  But these are minor quibbles.

As well as fulfilling its editor’s own mission statement, The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is an important book for other reasons, too. Firstly, it tackles the whole ‘women don’t write science fiction’ bollocks head on, and wins by a knockout. I would lay money on the fact that anyone picking up this book – out of curiosity perhaps, or as a learning experience, or just looking for something new to read – would forget all about the ‘by women’ epithet within the space of a couple of stories. They’d be too busy enjoying the wide range of material on offer, and wondering where they could get more stuff by these writers. To anyone – male, female, publisher, reader, writer – stuck with that sneaking feeling that science fiction written by women ‘just isn’t their thing’, I would say get yourself a copy of this anthology and prepare to have all your assumptions blown out of the water.

The anthology also does great work in debunking the currently fashionable complaint that SF is exhausted. Compiling a Year’s Best must be the devil’s own job, and clearly it’s physically impossible these days to even hope to read every piece of SF short fiction published in a given year. But one of the issues I’ve seen aired about Year’s Bests in recent years is that the large majority of stories selected are culled from relatively few venues, and always the same venues, an editorial choice that is bound to result in a degree of sameness and even blandness, however honourable the intention otherwise. Hence the impression of science fictional exhaustion.  The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women isn’t a Year’s Best, of course – these works have been chosen from stories published over the past two decades – but it is noticeable and commendable to see twenty-five separate venues listed in the publication permissions credits. I would perhaps have liked to see a story or two coming from places outside the genre – but again, this is a small quibble, and overall the diversity of source venues is reflected in the stimulating diversity of the stories on offer here.

And almost as a bonus, we have the sheer quality of the writing. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who carps on about science fiction not being capable of the heights of literary expression and formal innovation reached in the sphere of mainstream literary fiction needs to read this book and then revise that opinion. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women offers abundant proof, if any were needed, that science fiction can do anything mainstream fiction can do and then some.

I’ve been on a wonderful journey with these stories. I recommend this book unreservedly, and I hope that once you have read it you will do the same.