Monthly Archives: December 2015

Two for the road – best of British

ifthen.mdaBonfire night in Hastings always left me wanting to rush home and write about it. It’s an elaborate and thrilling affair, an hours-long spectacle of mime, mummery, music and street artistry, prepared for many weeks in advance and attended upon by thousands. It has the feel of a pagan carnivale, which I suppose Guy Fawkes night is, in a way. The costumes, pipes and drums certainly put fire in the blood and I for one found the whole thing exciting and strangely moving, the kind of public ceremonial that leaves you feeling intrinsically linked to history in a mysterious way. I’ve not attended the bonfire parade in the almost-neighbouring town of Lewes, but from what I understand it is taken at least as seriously as the one in Hastings and is at least as ornate.

There’s an extended sequence towards the beginning of Matthew de Abaitua’s Lewes-set novel If Then that just has to have been inspired by the bonfire ceremonials – I’d eat my proverbial hat if it wasn’t. It’s a fantastic scene, diabolic and weird, and though on the face of it it has nothing to do with a bonfire party, I couldn’t imagine anyone capturing the spirit of the thing so vividly and in such brightly sinister colours as de Abaitua.

What are they celebrating then, de Abaitua’s Lewesians? Eviction Night of course – and we all must know where the germ of that idea came from. The horrifying scenes in If Then now seem to cast a backward shadow over the whole of the 2000s, all those ridiculous Friday nights, waiting to see who would leave the Big Brother house (and who cares about that now for even a microsecond?)

De Abaitua has certainly got his own back on Davina.

When you think about post-New Wave novels of the Cold War such as Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay, what comes to mind is a kind of uneasy dreaming, a communal self-deception in the face of oncoming disaster. These novels – and there are others we might add to their number: Keith Roberts’s Pavane of course, D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – have a languorous, pastoral quality that belies their urgency. Written in the shadow of the Bomb, subsumed by the brasher and seemingly more contemporary colours of cyberpunk, they are important to British SF in a way that is not always paid due diligence. Now we have de Abaitua’s If Then, whose themes and concerns and sense of place echo those of the post New-Wave in a manner almost shocking in its resonance.

Not the Bomb, but the bomb, not the Cold War, but the mass-produced, soul-grinding exigences of late capitalism. If Then shows us – in the murky mud-green tones of John Singer Sargent’s great World War One painting ‘Gassed’ – how the capitalist experiment is failing. It also provides an equally horrific illustration of the perils we face in finding a route out of it, something that might fill its vacuum without destroying the lot of us – and the planet – in the process.

If Then starts out reading like metaphor. The deeper you penetrate its interior, the more you come to understand that it is documentary. This isn’t really the future, or indeed the past. These things are happening now, to real people. I found the first quarter of this novel to be some of the most gauntly terrifying SF I have ever read.

If Then may be one of the most important works of British SF to appear in recent years. It is sinewy, tough meat at times, but then so is any decent intellectual discussion. It is stunningly original and superbly well written. For those who care about such things, it is firmly of SF, not the literary mainstream – yet it is technically as complex and well executed as any modernist novel you may meet on your Booker travels. I hope this book will be discussed and debated and praised, for it deserves all three sorts of attention in generous measure. If Then is the opposite of the literature of reassurance, it is everything science fiction should be aiming for, and it is wonderful to see de Abaitua back on the scene.

“Do you think that an artist imagines the final painting in an instant? Thatanne.charnock.embers the painting composes itself through a moment’s inspiration? The artist must have a strategy every bit as cunning as the commander of a great army. Like Nicolo di Tolentino, here, in this painting. Remember that.” (p 65) 

In this scene, not far from the start of Anne Charnock’s second novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, the Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello tutors his daughter Antonia in the art of composition. Using his drawings for ‘The Battle of San Romano’ as examples, Uccello prompts Antonia to describe the many ways in which the panting not so much allows itself to be looked at as gives the viewer quiet instructions in ways of seeing. Through the careful use and positioning of key symbols and images, Uccello’s work does not just set a scene, it tells a story. That this scene conveys with such beautiful economy the signs and symbols – a lance, a wooden chest, the plague, a portrait, a battle, a nunnery – that Charnock herself has used to stitch together her own three-stranded narrative is but one reason among many that this quiet, lovely and exquisitely crafted novel is itself a masterclass in composition.

There are traumas hinted at in these pages – the untimely death of a parent, the cataclysmic loss of life in war, the entry of a thirteen-year-old girl into a life of permanent seclusion in a convent – but these are meditated upon rather than graphically described. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a contemplation of history, of the ties that bind us and the losses that define us. The stories of three women – a young painter in Renaissance Italy, a teenage girl working on a history project in contemporary London, an art historian living one hundred years from now – intertwine to form a narrative that moves us and surprises us in equal measure. As in her debut novel A Calculated Life, the clarity and refined elegance of Charnock’s prose is a significant achievement.

In the Acknowledgements section of Sleeping Embers, Anne Charnock states how much she enjoys the research portion of writing a novel, and indeed this enjoyment, Charnock’s love of and fascination in her subject matter, shines through on every page. Charnock’s research is expertly deployed, inviting us in to discover more about her subjects rather than fencing us out behind a barrage of facts. I’m passionately interested in painting myself, and so will often naturally gravitate towards novels that include the visual arts as a core subject matter. For every novel that knows what it’s doing (Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, Russell Hoban’s My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, or The Bat Tattoo, or indeed anything by Hoban) there seem to be a dozen that simply appropriate art as a handy bolt-on ‘subject of interest’, a problem I find annoying and disappointing in equal measure. What a joy then, to relinquish myself to Charnock’s Quattrocento, to contemplate her analysis of the relationship between the work of Bernard and Gauguin, to be made party to that final scene with Antonia, bright as an icon, in which she discovers that colour, that paint itself is capable of telling a story that transcends mere realism, a discovery that may have exerted a seminal influence on future generations of artists far in her future. That Charnock knows what she’s doing is never in doubt. When I found myself looking up the specific works by Uccello that Charnock references in her text, I knew I’d been thoroughly seduced by this novel. And for all that Antonia Uccello’s portrait of her mother at prayer is a beautiful yet entirely fabricated construct, one cannot entirely let go of the feeling that the painting is in fact out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

You can find out more about the inspirations behind Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind at Anne Charnock’s Pinterest page, here.

Needless to say, both If Then and Sleeping Embers will be getting my vote for next year’s BSFA Award.

Happy New Year, everyone. Gods bless 2016, and all who sail in her.

The countdown has begun…

With the new year rapidly approaching, it’s lovely to see that the new and expanded Titan edition of The Race has made the Barnes & Noble SFF blog’s list of the 42 Most Anticipated novels of 2016!

the race cover (2)

While in B&N’s follow-up article detailing the 2016 Books SFF Editors Want You to Read, the wonderful Cath Trechman has this to say:

“As soon as I finished reading The Race I wanted to press it into the hands of everyone I know. Much like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it’s science fiction that packs an emotional punch—subtle and layered but at the same time compelling and very readable. It is set partly in a future scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, and partly in modern times, and tells the story of four damaged people whose lives are inextricably linked—and a child’s kidnaping with consequences that reach across worlds. The Race has already been nominated for several awards and the Titan edition features a brand-new chapter, which I think completes the book even more effectively than before. I love this book, it still haunts my dreams.”

What a beautiful accolade – thanks, Cath! With ARCs of The Race currently in preparation, it truly feels as if the book is almost here.

In the meantime, it’s well worth checking out both of the above lists. There are some fascinating novels on the way.

Nominating for the BSFA Awards and end-of-year musings (Part Two)

So here I am, as promised, with my round-up of the short fiction and non-fiction that resonated with me this year.

The category of short fiction has, as always and as for everyone, presented me with problems. There’s too much of it for anyone to come halfway close to providing a proper assessment (although some brave souls such as Ethan Robinson, Charles Payseur, K. Tempest Bradford and Lois Tilton give it a damn good try), and for whatever reason it seems to be the discussion of short fiction in particular that becomes plagued by a kind of shallow topicality, with similar types and profiles of short fiction bobbing to the surface again and again ad infinitum. I find this depressing and tiresome, especially when the most lauded stories turn out to be pleasing enough, OK, but hardly substantial when compared with, say, an Alice Munro story or a Yiyun Li story or a David Constantine story or a Claire Vaye Watkins story or an Aminatta Forna story. (Because yes, that’s exactly the kind of comparison we should be making.) Pressures of time and general short-fiction-malaise have ensured I have done little more than skim the surface of the veritable ocean of stories that appeared in 2015. I have, however, come across some that I would be more than happy to see on any of the awards shortlists in 2016. So in no particular order:

  1. THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS by Kai Ashante Wilson (tor.com). I don’t even know if this novella will qualify as short fiction for most awards – at around 42,000 words (I think) it breaks the word count for more than one set of guidelines – but I saw someone saying the other day that it qualifies for the Hugo and if that’s right it should win hands down. This novella is so rich, both in texture and content, that it really needs several readings to take it all in. The demi-god (or is he?) Demane falls in love with Captain, a hardened mercenary charged with guiding a merchant caravan safely through a hazardous tract of wilderness known as the Wildeeps. There is a beast at large there, it is rumoured – but what is the true nature of that beast, and what does its presence signify for the world of Captain and Demane? This is a story of magic and science, science and magic and in Sorcerer‘s concern with the bridge between these two disciplines I was reminded a little of Zachary Jernigan’s Jeroun stories. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a fantasy of the highest order, vital and intelligent, a tapestry of living language that tugs at your mind long after reading. I think Wilson is shaping up to be a writer of genuine importance. Bravo.
  2. THE PAUPER PRINCE AND THE EUCALYPTUS JINN by Usman T. Malik (tor.com). Science and magic again, but not in the same way. This story – about a second generation Pakistani-American going in search of his heritage and finding a lot more weirdness than he bargained for is mystifying and beautiful and heart-wrenching. It is also complex and nuanced and stunningly written. It fulfils all the promise that was present in Malik’s Nebula-nominated The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family and all in all it just makes me glad to read something this moving, this well imagined, this intelligent. The stuff about carpets is breathtaking! Again, bravo.
  3. FABULOUS BEASTS by Priya Sharma (tor.com). Ancestry again, but of a weirder kind. Priya Sharma is a seriously good writer. As a commentary on the family, post-urban Britain, and sisters doing it for themselves, ‘Fabulous Beasts’ is strong and lucid and beautifully wrought. Her stories for Black Static (The Absent Shade) and Interzone (Blonde) this year are equally worthy of mention.
  4. HER FIRST HARVEST by Malcolm Devlin (Black Static). Adults living on a sterile mining colony have to be ‘seeded’ to grow fungal matter on their bodies as the main source of food in this bizarre and disturbing marriage of apocalyptic science fiction and Regency romance. This is original and genuinely weird and I loved it, most of all for its lucid, understated language and for actually getting under my skin… Devlin’s story in the most recent issue of Interzone, ‘Five Conversations with My Daughter (Who Travels in Time)’ is every bit as good and Devlin is most definitely a writer worth watching.
  5. TEA TIME by Rachel Swirsky (Lightspeed). A delicious meditation on time, metafiction, and Alice in Wonderland. This is exactly the kind of story I want to see more of. Such poise, such poetry. A lovely thing indeed.
  6. PAUL AND HIS SON by J. M. McDermott (Asimov’s). Brilliant story set in a near-future NYC. Paul is a lawyer. His client is Noah, a millionaire businessman who is trying to get his life-extension treatments illegally extended. Paul allies himself with Noah’s doctor in order to obtain drugs to ‘help his son to focus’ on school. Paul Jr keeps running away and he’s obsessed with machines. This is effortless worldbuilding, a near-future science fiction scenario that feels like today, squared. The relationship between a caring but clueless father and a teenage son is perfectly realised. This story is so superior to most of the other SFF short fiction out there it’s ridiculous.
  7. A MURMURATION by Alastair Reynolds (Interzone). A taut and effective story about obsession and madness. The idea of starling murmurations as predictive algorithms, as modular organisms, is fascinating and original. A dark story with a fantastic sense of place – the bleak fenlands of East Anglia, the narrator’s sense of alienation whilst living there, are wonderfully captured. This is a great piece of writing and I would love to see Reynolds writing more in this vein.
  8. DOCUMENTARY by Vajra Chandrasekera (Lightspeed). This was the first story of the year that really grabbed me. A woman who changes into a helicopter at the full moon refuses to discharge her weaponry – the one act which might cure her – in order not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. ‘Cameras’ filming the documentary are the presence of the dead who have already fallen victim to the war. A highly original variation on the werewolf trope, Mievillian without being remotely copycat. Taut yet lyrical writing. Chandrasekera is one of the most promising newer voices around.
  9. THE OCCIDENTAL BRIDE by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld). My favourite of Sriduangkaew’s stories this year (though they’re all good), ‘The Occidental Bride’ is a biting commentary on orientalism and terrorism, set in a world torn between a shattered Europe and a surveillance-state Hong Kong. This is a terse, uneasy story, rich and disturbing, with Sriduangkaew’s characteristically dense language and vividly evoked imagery impressive as ever. Of Sriduangkaew’s other 2015 stories, I particularly enjoyed ‘Provenance’ in the all-women Lovecraft anthology She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles. This is one of those darkly vibrant Mythos-in-space stories I always love, and a great one. (I’d enjoy seeing the doctor make a repeat appearance in another story sometime!) The impassioned conviction behind Sriduangkaew’s writing, coupled with her flair for language, maintain her position as one of the most interesting and competent of the new generation of short fiction writers. She’s always worth reading and I hope we see more of her next year.
  10. THE FAR SHORE by Yoko Tawada (Words Without Borders). A story inspired by the accident to the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. This is the future, and a young American pilot accidentally crashes his plane into a nuclear reactor off the coast of Japan. A wave of chaos, fear, death and unforeseen events spreads out from this initial accident, affecting individuals and whole states alike. The story is told in a totally deadpan, very factual manner. Effective and angry and yes, we need more SF like this.
  11. MINOTAUR: AN ANALYSIS OF THE SPECIES by Sean Robinson (Unlikely Story). Well, I just love fake taxonomy stories. Could read them all day. Borgesian, delightful, perfect. Exactly what it says on the tin.
  12. ANDROID WHORES CAN’T CRY by Natalia Theodoridou (Clarkesworld). I like everything I’ve read of Theodoridou, who is a strikingly gifted writer. I especially admire her forensic approach to devastating subject matter, as here. A story about the lies history tells, and those she exploits in the telling. This one sticks in the mind.
  13. Excerpt from UNLANGUAGE by Michael Cisco (Lackington’s).“At the end of a relentlessly long drive—nearly to the end of the line—the building, rambling and drab—pale lights in only a few of its many windows—silence of ceaselessly whirring air vents—tall, narrow white corridors of institutional plainness and squareness—pipes below the ceiling—paint peeling on the walls becoming pink and inflamed—wan fluorescent lights in trays—thin, sour odor of decomposing flesh—a metal door like the rest, with its thick integument of blue paint and an arrow slit. The school is not elegant; it’s like a gas station.” As the title suggests, this is actually a section from a hitherto unpublished novel, but it works perfectly well as a standalone story in its own right, and I like it too much not to include it here. Brilliant, weird and decadent as all Cisco’s fiction, this is a superb little sub-Mythos story about the untapped power of language to summon horrors. Genuinely ambitious, as all the best weird fiction should be, it reminded me in places of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I love this story, and I wish I’d written it. As a writer, Cisco is criminally under-appreciated. I only hope he’ll let us read Unlanguage in its entirety one day soon.
  14. THE DAYS OF TALKING MOUNTAINS by Paul Jessup (Farrago’s Wainscot). A webzine entirely new to me, I came across Farrago’s Wainscot completely by chance. A lucky discovery and I’ll certainly be looking out for it in the future. This short, sad, frightening and surreal story about a brother Gerald and a sister Alice and the giant farm they keep in memory of the Master captivated me utterly. Replete with elliptical poetry, it reads like a piece of European weird fiction. I’ll be reading more of Jessup, that’s for sure.
  15. ISLANDS OFF THE COAST OF CAPITOLA, 1978 by David Herter (tor.com). This is billed as ‘a modern re-imagining’ of a story by Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death’, which was itself inspired by Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. I’ve read the Wells but not the Wolfe, so I can’t comment on how exactly the two stories interconnect. What I can do is recommend Herter’s piece as a stunning piece of writing, from another criminally under-appreciated writer. I intend to seek out the Wolfe, so I can read the two in tandem.

Sticking with short fiction just for the moment, I’d like to give a mention to two 2015 anthology projects that particularly caught my attention. Firstly the above-mentioned SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS, which presents a range of excellent Lovecraftian fiction, all by women writers. A lot of talent and imagination has been expended on this book, including splendid cover art by Sarah K. Diesel and interior illustrations by a variety of women artists. As well as the Sriduangkaew noted above, there are standout stories from Gemma Files, Angela Slatter, Pandora Hope and Sharon Mock.

The second anthology I’d like to mention is AICKMAN’S HEIRS, edited by Simon Strantzas and published by Undertow. [DISCLAIMER: I do actually have a story in this one myself, which it is not my place to comment on here.] I’m strangely devoted to Aickman’s fiction, and so this project was always going to be close to my heart. What I could not have predicted, though, was the marvellous cohesiveness of the anthology Strantzas eventually assembled. All the stories are of a superior quality and I would recommend each and every one of them, for Aickman stalwarts and new initiates alike, but standouts for me personally include Helen Marshall’s ‘The Vault of Heaven’, Michael Cisco’s ‘Infestations’, Lisa Tuttle’s ‘The Book that Finds You’ and Malcolm Devlin’s ‘Two Brothers’.

The non-fiction category of awards – sometimes referred to as Best Related Work – presents a different kind of problem in that we’re expected to consider essay collections and other full-length works alongside individual blog posts, essays, reviews, discussion projects and articles. The reasons for this are doubtless lost in the mists of time – something to do with the vast proliferation of shorter-length online material in the age of the internet, no doubt – but clearly the rules need to be re-evaluated. Until they are, I guess the category will continue to shuffle about on the sidelines, neglected and obscure, a continuing frustration for those of us who think it’s actually rather important.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll continue to lump everything together in a shapeless mass, the same as everyone else. So again, in no particular order:

1. RAVE AND LET DIE by Adam Roberts (NewCon Press). Roberts was on the jury for the Kitschies in 2015, and alongside the challenge of judging the books (well over a hundred of them) he set himself the task of reviewing them too, thus providing a fascinating overview of the science fiction and fantasy of 2014. This book is as entertaining as it is informative. For those works that merit close attention and serious scrutiny, Roberts brings his full weight of intellect and erudition to bear.  When a book is shallow, trite, poorly executed or just plain bad, Roberts seems never to run out of original and highly amusing ways of saying so. Rave and Let Die is a must for every library of SF criticism.

2. DUNE, FIFTY YEARS ON; HOW A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL CHANGED THE WORLD by Hari Kunzru (The Guardian). “Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius.” Any essay by Kunzru is a joy to read, and this piece, drawing on Dune’s politics and spirituality and the way they look to us now, post 9/11, is simply outstanding.

3. FROM ANNIHILATION TO ACCEPTANCE: A WRITER’S SURREAL JOURNEY by Jeff VanderMeer (The Atlantic). A fascinating and deeply personal insight into how the Southern Reach trilogy came to be written – and how it felt to write it.

4. ATEMPORALITY by Vajra Chandrasekera. As well as being one of the most exciting new short fiction writers currently on the scene, Chandrasekera is also one of the most thoughtful, original and articulate SF bloggers. The only problem with his criticism is that he doesn’t write more of it – although of course pieces demonstrating this degree of depth and clarity take real time to write, and I’d rather read one essay by him than ten hastily assembled and less considered thinkpieces by less committed writers. ‘Atemporality’ considers the impossibility of short fiction criticism in a climate where one is somehow expected to keep up with everything. WAR IS OTHER PEOPLE, Chandrasekera’s essay on Military SF, is equally worthy of mention and such a great read.

5. RACE, SPECULATIVE FICTION AND AFRO-SF by Chinelo Onwualu (New Left Project). Superb essay covering the Puppies, internet outrage, the reality of diversity and the true place of magic and spiritualism in Afro-SF. Essential, inspiring reading. Well worth considering alongside it are two other wonderful pieces, one being an interview with the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah in The Guardian, the other being Sofia Samatar’s powerful and essential essay for the New Inquiry, SKIN FEELING. Neither of these pieces is directly about speculative fiction, but both have a central relevance to the debates around diversity currently taking place in genre circles and should be read.

6. CLIMATE ANXIETY COUNSELLING by Kate Schapira. Driven by her own anxieties about climate change, the poet Kate Schapira first began her Climate Anxiety Counselling project in the summer of 2014 when she set up a booth in a public park and invited passers by to share their anxieties about global warming (or anything else) which she then (with their permission) transcribed into a series of flash fictions, vignettes, memoirs and prose poems. The results, many of which can be read at Schapira’s Climate Anxiety blog, are often mesmerising. Schapira’s unique approach in setting herself up as a conduit for the voices of others has resulted in a Gesamtkunstwerk that is both unique in character and vitally important.

7. SEX, DEATH AND THE MAN-OMELET IN KELLY LINK’S ‘THE SPECIALIST’S HAT’ by Helen Marshall (Weird Fiction Review). Weird Fiction Review continues to be one of the very best webzines around, and this essay by Helen Marshall, the most recent entry in WFR’s ongoing ‘101 Weird Writers’ series, is an imaginative, entertaining and thought-provoking examination of the philosophical uncanny in Link’s landmark story. Anything Marshall writes is worthy of notice, and it’s marvellous to see her beginning to build a roster of gorgeously inventive critical essays to place alongside her already remarkable body of fiction.

8. READING ELYSIUM BY JENNIFER MARIE BRISSETT by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife). A fascinating and in-depth analysis of one of the key speculative works – and winner of the PKD Award – in 2014. I particularly enjoyed MKS’s examination of the tendency towards ‘accepted’ readings of texts within critical circles, and how this can set up a false or derailed discourse. One of MKS’s best reviews to date, I’d say (and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition).

9. ARMADA IS FUCKING TERRIBLE by Andrew Liptak. Angrily entertaining yet deadly serious in intent, Liptak’s honest, heartfelt and well argued critique of Ernest Cline’s 2015 novel Armada seeks to examine the elitist tendency within geek culture and its propensity to exclude rather than include outsiders.

10. WHY PEOPLE STOPPED READING THE STUFF YOU POST ON THE INTERNET by Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture). McCalmont’s honesty, thoughtfulness, sometimes-contrarianism and general refusal to have his views, tastes and opinions moulded by fashionable discourse are valuable and increasingly rare commodities in SFF, and although I always enjoy and appreciate his film criticism I do wish he’d go back to reviewing books, at least occasionally, because we need his voice. This piece, on the decline (?) of real blogging, is provocative and timely in equal measure.

11. FORD MADOX FORD: AS SCARY AS H.P. LOVECRAFT? by Ned Beauman (The Guardian). I loved this essay, which draws some unexpected parallels between the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Ford Madox Ford’s seminal classic The Good Soldier. ‘Ford and Lovecraft are not often discussed in the same breath,’ says Beauman. ‘But in fact they are very similar. The difference is that Lovecraft appears to be writing about cosmic horror but is really writing about sex, whereas Ford appears to be writing about sex but is really writing about cosmic horror.’ He certainly makes a convincing case, and makes entertaining reading in the process. Like Beauman, I never expected to enjoy The Good Soldier. Like Beauman, I found it electrifying, horrifying and utterly compelling. The experience of reading it – anticipating each new revelation in much the same way one might anticipate a new episode of The Killing or London Spy, only with ten times the eventual satisfaction – is still fresh and delicious in my mind, and The Good Soldier would be a desert island book for me. Beauman has ensured that the next time I read it, I’ll be thinking Cthulhu.

12. MAGIC IS AFOOT by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta). Robinson has continued his explorations of SFF short fictions in exemplary and heroic fashion this year, providing us with a series of essays that are less reviews and more contemplative meditations not just on the qualities of specific stories, but on the nature of short fiction writing and – as always with Robinson – the point and purpose of fiction in general. Unlike so many, Robinson’s pieces not only reward but necessitate repeated reading. I could have picked any one of a dozen entries from Marooned Off Vesta to list here, but the one above – on SFF’s vexed relationship with the problem of magic – has stayed with me particularly as a kind of bookmark, a reminder of this subject which is becoming increasingly central to and problematic within the genre. More a raising of the question than a thoroughgoing examination of it, I can only hope that Robinson chooses to continue his enquiries with a full-length essay in 2016.

13. And finally in the Best Related Work category, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the reviews by my colleagues at Strange Horizons that helped to light up my reading year and best exemplify why the magazine is so well worth your time. Benjamin Gabriel’s review of Mark Danielewski’s ONE RAINY DAY IN MAY is a brilliant appraisal of MZD’s project as a writer and one of the only reviews that managed to discuss the (ambitious, perplexing and yes, admirable) idea of The Familiar without undue snark. Similarly, Ryan Elliott’s review of Aliya Whiteley’s THE BEAUTY is most likely unsurpassed in terms of excellence within the body of criticism surrounding this fine novella and just such a thought-provoking read. I enjoyed Erin Horakova’s review of PADDINGTON too much not to include it here (and on the subject of Erin Horakova, do let me point you in the direction of her brilliantly acerbic and oh-so-necessary demolition of A. N. Wilson’s LONDON – you won’t regret reading this, I promise}. K. Kamo’s reviews are unfailingly excellent, and I was so happy to see this one of Sandra Newman’s THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR, a novel that made the year’s SFF awards shortlists preposterous by its non-inclusion. Niall Harrison’s review of Jennifer Marie Brissett’s ELYSIUM does everything to sharpen one’s sadness that he does not review more, and Abigail Nussbaum’s review of Zen Cho’s excellent collection SPIRITS ABROAD forms just one example of why Nussbaum’s criticism continues to be some of the best around.  Gautam Bhatia has written some wonderful stuff for SH this year, but I’m singling out this piece, on Anthony Trevelyan’s THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD in particular, probably because this is a book I want to read anyway and Bhatia’s review made me all the more curious about it. Paul Kincaid’s review of Iain Pears’s ARCADIA had rather the opposite effect, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that Kincaid’s criticism is as supple, erudite and inspiring to read as always. The same could be said of Aishwarya Subramanian’s criticism – I just love the way she writes. Check out her review of Bryce Olukotun’s NIGERIANS IN SPACE as a fine example. But if I had to pick out a personal ‘review of the year’ from Strange Horizons, I think it would have to be Paul St John Mackintosh’s review of the new Penguin Classics edition of Thomas Ligotti’s SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER AND GRIMSCRIBE. To describe this essay simply as a review is to sell it short. Mackintosh not only provides us with an overview of Ligotti and his position within the horror canon, he also examines the contradictory relationship between Ligotti’s nihilistic worldview and the curiously uplifting experience of reading his work, as well as the reasons we read and enjoy horror fiction in general. It’s a superb piece, and I will certainly be seeking out more comment and criticism by Mackintosh in the coming year.

So that’s non-fiction. I’d kind of intended to do a round-up of 2015 films here as well, but this post is way too long already. I hope to find time for a ‘Films addendum’ before the year is out…

Nominating for the BSFA Awards and end-of-year musings (Part One)

Yes – it’s time. With Christmas and New Year come the first intimations of the rapidly approaching 2016 awards season. First out of the starting gates are the BSFA Awards. Under the new and somewhat arcane awards rules, those eligible to nominate must now do so twice: once for the selection of the longlists (which as I understand it will consist of ALL eligible nominations received in this first round) and then again for the selection of the shortlists. BSFA members and members of the 2015 Eastercon must get their first round of nominations in by December 31st in order for them to count in the second round. So get nominating. The rules and online nominations form can be found here. Alternatively, you can email your full list of nominations to the awards administrator at awards@bsfa.co.uk

Remember, nominations are restricted to four works per category, which can call for some difficult choices. I’ve not completely made up my mind yet which will make my final cut, but as has become traditional at this time of year, I’d like to mention some of those works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which have particularly caught my attention.

In the novel category, three works stand out: Alexis Wright’s The Swan swanbook.wrightBook, Sarah Taylor’s The Shore and Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me. All three could be called post-apocalypse novels, but I’m coming more and more to dislike such easy categorisations and in any case, the three books are all very different. What these three novels do have in common, sadly, is critical neglect. While The Shore did make the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the shortlist of the Guardian First Book Award, it seems barely to have been discussed in SFF circles. Similarly with The Swan Book, which was shortlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin Awards in Wright’s native Australia, but – this excellent review by Octavia Cade at Strange Horizons aside – has been more or less bypassed by critics with an interest in SFF. Laura Van Den Berg has rightly received a great deal of praise for Find Me in the US mainstream book press. Why the British release seems to have been absent from just about everyone’s radar is anyone’s guess, but whatever the reason, it’s a serious oversight. These three books offer so much to the reader, not simply in terms of what they wish to tell us about the dangers of climate change, the breakdown of society under unchecked capitalism and the iniquities it perpetrates, but in terms of how their stories are told. The fractured narratives of The Shore, the extraordinary language of The Swan Book, the blurring of realities in Find Me – anyone in doubt over the literary value of speculative fiction would be hard pressed to find three more complex, absorbing, beautiful and passionately executed novels from the whole of what gets called the mainstream, all year.

rawblood.wardOn the horror side, of course I’m going to name Catriona Ward’s Rawblood as my Book of the Year. I also need to mention J. M. McDermott’s Straggletaggle. I think this was actually a 2014 release, but blink and you’d have missed it, and so far as I can recall I don’t think either the eBook or the physical editions were actually available in the UK until 2015 in any case. Straggletaggle is a wild, weird and genuinely terrifying deconstruction of the steampunk idiom. Quite brilliant, and quite unlike anything else you’ll have read this year. Once again, the lack of critical commentary is really quite staggering. It genuinely upsets me, the paucity of attention McDermott is given. As one of the most original voices currently working in SFF his name should be everywhere.  His works are spare, acerbic and mystifying, sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I’m intending to make a deeper study of his work at some point (time, time) but in the meantime, I would thoroughly recommend Straggletaggle as a starting point. Please read it.

Honourable mentions must go to Oliver Langmead’s bold and really rather trouble.linkwonderful Dark Star, a science fiction novel written entirely in iambic pentameters. We have seen speculative fiction embrace epic poetry before now – most notably in Anne Carson’s sublime Red Doc> and Sam Barlow’s gripping LA werewolf noir Sharp Teeth (read them now if you haven’t already!) – but Langmead takes to the form admirably and there is a real strength of line in his composition. Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border offers only the tiniest excuse to be called SF, but fans of The Carhullan Army will find plenty of reminder of that novel in Hall’s treatment of landscape and illumination of the inner lives of characters. I loved this book, which would vie with Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage as my Book of the Year Across All Genres. China Mieville’s collection Three Moments of an Explosion seems to signal a new direction for Mieville. There are occasional flashes of ur-Mieville excess, of course (tentacles!) but on the whole the explosions these collected pieces generate are more tautly controlled. more contemplative, if that’s the right word for a collection that still does contain excavated alien antecedents, lake demons, arcane playing cards that force you into playing forfeits with Elder Gods or whoever. I loved the mix-up of fictions and metafictions. Mieville has a new novella out in February which I’m looking forward to but from a critical standpoint I’m especially interested to see where his next full-length novel might take him. Still on the subject of collections, it’s not every year we have a new book by Kelly Link to delight us, so the publication of Link’s fourth collection, Get in Trouble, was a particular treat. I’d read a couple of the stories before in various online venues, but several were completely new to me and all, as with everything by Link, will deepen and strengthen in the rereading.

anne.charnock.embersLate Arrivals at the BSFA Ball? Two I’m reading at the moment, both British, both second novels, both immensely promising and both might well make it to my final BSFA nominations slate. The first is Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which presents us with three interlinked stories across three different time periods: past, present and future. Art, history and future society form the primary subject matter and I’m loving this novel every bit as much as I enjoyed Charnock’s debut, A Calculated Life, which I read earlier this year. Secondly we have Matthew de Abaitua’s long-awaited return with If Then, which if it stays as good all the way to the end as it is in its first third, will be one of my top tips to take next year’s Clarke Award.

New stuff to watch for 2016? It’s way early yet, but just to mention a couple graft.2016of books I’ve had the pleasure and the luck to read in manuscript form and that will be coming out next year. First up, Matt Hill’s second novel Graft will be out from Angry Robot in February. Anyone who’s read Hill’s debut The Folded Man – and if not, why not? – will instantly know where they are as Hill’s mean and broken future Manchester is pretty inimitable. You’ll meet some amazing characters navigating some profoundly dangerous situations in an environment of true weirdness that has a touch of the William Gibsons about it whilst at the same time presenting a science fiction that’s very personal, very British. In a word, it’s fantastic. Zachary Jernigan’s new short story collection – so new its title hasn’t been announced yet – should be out in the spring from Ragnarok Publications. Some of the stories take place in the world of Jeroun – see Jernigan’s tough-minded and exquisitely wrought novels No Return and Shower of Stones – some have a more recognisably realworld setting. All are pretty extraordinary. I found the collection stunning, to be honest – I gave it a 10/10 on my private score-ometer (whatever that is) – and I hope it wins many awards. I could say the same of Aliya Whiteley’s upcoming novella from Unsung Stories, The Arrival of Missives. This is so beautifully executed it made me cry. All those who read and loved The Beauty, brace yourselves, because Missives is just as good, if not better. All those evil people who haven’t read The Beauty yet, why not atone for this grave mistake by pre-ordering The Arrival of Missives right away??

radiance.valenteTwo spring releases that I’ve not read yet but am particularly excited about are Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, a novel based around the world and the characters we first met in her story ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ which I loved, and which most recently appeared in the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women. It’s a feast of metafiction, found documents and embedded texts, by all accounts, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.  My second pre-order for 2016 is Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel Gold Fame Citrus. Watkins’s debut, the short fiction collection Battleborn, was one of my favourite books of 2012 and I’m hoping this new work – a near-future science fiction set amongst the same landscapes as Battleborn – will be something equally special.

Back soon for Part Two – in which I’ll talk about the short fiction and non-fiction which most stood out for me in 2015.

 

The Weekend Read

My story ‘Marielena’, first published in Interzone last summer, is currently available to read online as part of The Weekend Read, as organised by For Books’ Sake, a charity devoted to the promotion of women’s writing through workshops, online publishing projects and live events nationwide.  The Weekend Read aims to promote short fiction by women, with a new story up every Friday and previously featuring stories by Patricia Duncker, Jenn Ashworth, Kirsty Logan and plenty of others. Many thanks to For Books’ Sake for their enthusiasm and commitment to new fiction.

‘Marielena’ tells the story of Noah, a teacher forced into exile from his (unnamed) homeland in the Middle East. His experience of being a refugee is difficult enough already, but then he meets Mary, a homeless woman who seems to know more about the future of Noah’s adopted city than she really should.

This story was directly inspired by reading some of the real-life experiences of refugees seeking asylum in my country. ‘Marielena’ was a story I felt I needed to write, just to say something, to do something. I hope readers will carry something away from it, however small.

“You imagine you understand how it begins. You – with your passport from birth and your front door key, your insurance against life, death and hijacking – think of palace coups and mobs with guns, young men in dirty bandanas and shouldering Kalashnikovs. How about a voting booth, a press conference, a gaggle of bland-speaking politicians wearing Western clothes? That’s how it’s done these days, believe me. Why shoot when you can legislate? The guns come out right at the end, for those who don’t get the message or who won’t get lost.” 

Thought for the day

“What the west sadly lacks is the humility to accept that it’s actually not in our power to sort out immensely complicated problems in the world. The only thing that we have the power to do, given that we lack a political class of wisdom and grace, is to make the situation worse by destroying infrastructure, by killing and maiming the citizens of a country that we don’t understand in the least, and radicalising and angering people more than they are already.”

Michel Faber, on sending The Book of Strange New Things to David Cameron to help with the war effort.

More brief updates…

I have so many things on the go at the moment that once again I’ve not had time to put together anything substantial for the blog, though hopefully this situation will be put to rights before too long. In the meantime, I can tell you that in terms of non-fiction writing I’m already preparing some posts for the weird fiction reading project/challenge/whatever I’m planning for 2016 (more on that soon), plus this week alone I’ve been drafting another review for Strange Horizons, as well as my Time Pieces column for the January issue of Interzone.

What is it about the end-of-year that always leaves me feeling as if I need a thirteenth month to get everything finished?

Work on The Rift is…exciting. It’s interesting and strange, that moment when a piece of writing begins to feel like a thing in its own right, something that exists apart from you and with its own agenda. There’s still enough new stuff happening in this draft to make it feel risky though, and surprising, to me most of all. Bizarrely, I seem to be enjoying myself.  The third draft is at the halfway mark, give or take a thousand words or so.

Listening to: Joanna Newsom, all the albums including the new one but especially my absolute favourite Ys, which I think may be one of the greatest song-sets ever written. It won’t come as any surprise to anyone, I’m sure, to learn how much I adore Newsom’s sprawling lyrics, which appear loose and anarchic but which are in fact supremely disciplined, supremely composed. Open-ended but intentionally so.

That’s how you write short stories…