Complications makes the GPI shortlist!

I’m particularly excited to announce that the French edition of The Silver Wind, Complications, has been shortlisted for France’s best known award for speculative fiction, the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire.

The GPI has been running since 1974, and introduced categories for works in translation in the 1990s. There have been some illustrious winners over the years. You might call the GPI the ‘French Clarke’ – except the GPI goes a mite further than the Clarke Award in offering award categories for Best Short Fiction and Best YA along with the Best Novel category. The GPI also honours manga, graphic novels and essays.

The short fiction category is open to both individual stories and whole collections. I’m thrilled to see Complications shortlisted alongside works by Ken Liu, Al Reynolds and Ian McDonald among others.

My amazing translator, Bernard Sigaud, is also shortlisted for his work on Complications for the Prix Jacques Chambon, the category of the GPI specifically dedicated to highlighting the work of translators. I’m delighted for him, and also for my publishers, Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot at Editions Tristram, who have put so much passion, energy and expertise into bringing Complications to a wider audience.

You can see details of all the GPI shortlists at the award’s official website here.

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Women in SF #3

Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

On a forgotten day some time between two hundred and three hundred years ago, the musician Juliana Cataveiro pulled her daughter’s limp body from a street flooded with the South Atlantic and carried her home through a hurricane. The storms raged for three days. During that time, Juliana sat in the attic of her home with her daughter and sang to her. On the first day, the South Atlantic plucked things from houses and bore them down the streets in strange, floating processions. On the second day, the wind took the roof off Juliana’s house. She dared it to take the body of her child and it did not. The child turned blue and cold. When the rain ceased and the sea fell flat and glimmered as if it had never stirred, never mind drowned souls in their hundreds, Juliana Cataveiro burned her daughter, put the ashes in a tin and her guitar on her back and came south, which was the only way to go. (Cataveiro p107)

While it may be true that everybody has a book in them, what proves your mettle as a writer is how you handle that difficult second novel.

It’s often said of first novels that they rely too heavily on autobiography. You know the kind of thing – stories of teenage angst and dysfunctional families, misfit loners finding themselves in the big city and naive ingenues falling in with the wrong kind of company amidst the dreaming spires all remain popular subjects among debut novelists. There’s nothing wrong with these subjects per se – their very universality makes them readily accessible and often compelling. But with so many pre-existing novels in the same vein, it becomes increasingly difficult for the aspiring novelist to bring anything new or interesting to these timeworn themes.

The first-time SF novelist faces a similar obstacle to originality. While she may not draw so heavily on her own childhood and adolesence, she may find herself tempted – subconsciously or otherwise – to keep the books and stories she read and reread during those formative years too close to hand. It was these novels that inspired her to become a writer, after all. Who would not aspire to creating such magic? And so the derivative cycle of genre fiction continues.

The most positive attribute of E. J. Swift’s debut novel Osiris was undoubtedly the writing. The book possessed a stylistic assurance that takes many writers two or three novels to come close to mastering. Its finely tuned lyricism, gentle but persuasive, demonstrated that Swift is an author who takes her craft seriously and to whom language is of central importance. Reading Osiris, you were left in no doubt that you were in the presence of a sensitive artist at work, and certain scenes – the opening execution scene in particular – continued to resonate long after the story itself had been concluded.

For me though, the story itself had problems that became impossible to ignore. I’d read it all before, basically: spoiled little rich girl meets poor revolutionary boy and gradually becomes alive to the horrifying injustices inherent in the system that supports her. Girl goes against corrupt and decadent family to fight the system alongside boy. Regime is challenged, calamity ensues. An overcautious structure also results in a serious pacing issue – as information is needlessly repeated, any sense of urgency is lost. The end product winds up somewhat stodgy and a tadge overcooked.

Swift finished the manuscript of Osiris soon after completing an MA in Creative Writing. There was then a delay of some years while the author found first the right agent and then the right publisher – problems every writer gets to know about, sooner or later, but that inevitably result in some level of authorial dissociation. The writer moves on, tries new things, starts a new novel. By the time that first book comes out, there is every risk that it will feel like old material. In spite of admiring the novel’s ambition and being impressed by the Swift’s evident feel for language and imagery, I could never escape the sense that in terms of its overall concept, Osiris was not original enough to stand out from all the other, similar debuts that had gone before it.

Swift’s follow-up, Cataveiro, is a whole different story. In terms of its plot, those rather predictable black-and-white certainties are gone, replaced by a world of swarming ambiguities. The pacing issues have been solved, as the action flows effortlessly forward in a series of cleverly constructed intertwining stories. Osiris‘s jejune lovers make way for nuanced, individually defined characters whose motives and drives range over a broad canvas of possibilities. Most gratifying of all, the standard dystopian set-up has given way to a compellingly drawn post-collapse world that feels scorchingly real and virtually limitless in its horizons. This is a very human book, a boldly compassionate book, a novel bulging with important questions about our own world which cannot fail to engage the sympathy and imagination of the reader. I try to avoid the term worlduilding wherever possible, but I have to concede that I found the worldbuiding in Cataveiro to be a thing of great beauty: both robust and poetical and – that word again – enviably assured.

Cataveiro is cunningly conceived to work as a standalone. Although the action takes place shortly after the events of Osiris, you don’t need to have read Osiris to make sense of it. Defying the laws of trilogy, Swift has created a work that issues naturally from of the events of her first novel and yet dispenses with all but one of that novel’s main characters. There are no tedious recaps, no desperate striving for continuity. Instead there is a whole new story, with Osiris nestled within that story as an integral yet unobtrusive part.

Swift’s writing also shows increasing maturity. There is a tactile quality, a perfume, an innate sensitivity to Swift’s control of language that both echoes and builds upon everything that proved most satisfying in the first book. There are no dull sentences. Swift’s interest in her characters and her story shines throughout the novel’s entire length. There are passages in Cataveiro that approach radiance. There is nothing so gratifying as watching a talented writer begin to fulfil her promise, and such solid development from one book to the next is a pleasure to see. I have the feeling though that Swift is only beginning to flex her muscles here. Should she choose – and I’m sure she will – to experiment still further with form, to stretch the boundaries of the genre in which she works, to break entirely free of the particular set of reader expectations that trilogy-writing inevitably entails, then I think she could be not just very good but seriously brilliant.

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Best Horror of the Year #6

I’m really very happy indeed to announce that my story ‘The Tiger’, originally published in Terror Tales of London (edited for Gray Friar by Paul Finch) will be reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume 6.

I’m very fond of ‘The Tiger’, which forms part of the loosely connected and still ongoing cycle of stories set in and around Lewisham in southeast London, and so it’s especially pleasing to see it finding a wider audience.

You can view the full ToC for BHoTY#6 here at SF Signal. As always, Ellen has selected a wonderfully varied and appetising (if that’s the right word) roster of stories. It’s thrilling to have ‘The Tiger’ in amongst them.

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Wolves at our door

Dogmen have me surrounded. They yip and slaver, waving crude knock-off AKs, their bandoliers glittering in the Middle’s glass reflections of a red and bloated sun. The streets are swimming in their oil-black blood but still they mass, overcoming the city’s defences… The armies of the Augmented are already massing at the gates. The best we can do now is set the place to self-destruct, robbing them of their prize. If they seize control of the city and its weaponry, then there can be no hope for the human diaspora pouring from the gates. (Wolves p150)

The wolves in Simon Ings’s new novel Wolves are artificial constructs, figments of augmented reality that can be perceived only by those in possession of the most up-to-date digital hardware. They are also, more metaphorically, the forces of change, the barbarians at the gate, the overwriters of the physically real with the digitally invasive. They are the capitalist powers that seize ideas, like prey, and subvert them to their will. They are the demons of doubt that urge us to sell out our dreams.

The story of Wolves is narrated by Conrad, a guy in his forties who at the opening of the novel is just about to walk out of one life and into another. He’s been in a car accident, a traumatic experience for him, and one that leaves his girlfriend Mandy maimed for life. Her hands are sheared off at the wrists, and Conrad, realising only now that he has never truly loved her, sees in her ultra-sophisticated, (and to him) ultra-creepy prosthetic hands everything that has been going wrong with their relationship. Unable to confront his failure head on, he leaves Mandy without a word and heads north, seeking sanctuary with Michel, a childhood friend he has not seen in years. But there is a secret buried in Conrad’s past, and the renewal of his friendship with Michel is threatening to bring that secret to the surface. As matters complicate in Conrad’s present, the world he grew up in becomes increasingly subsumed in a future that is threatening to run out of control. In the age of augmented reality, is analogue actuality about to be permanently outmoded?

I am more or less exactly the same age as Simon Ings. Like him, I grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s. Like him, I am part of the final generation who will be able to say they experienced a childhood and adolescence that had no knowledge of the internet. By the time I left school, ‘A’ Levels in IT were just about becoming an option. Our school boasted two – yes, that’s two – computers. My brother lusted after a ZX Spectrum. I didn’t start using a computer regularly myself until I was 25. In a very real sense, this analogue world is still my world, the world of my groundwater memories and therefore the world that is the repository of my creative iconography. It is a world that certain friends of mine, people half my age, can barely comprehend.

In the world of Wolves, such facts are important. As SF readers and writers, we’re used to novels set in the future, books that extrapolate current technologies and either rebuild the world with them or run amok. We’re used to novels set in the queasy ambience of our present day – the continually birthing future, in other words – where we all share the ominous sense that anything could be about to happen and probably already is happening. What we’re less used to are novels that straddle that uneasy gap between the analogue past and the rapidly expanding digital future. If I were to name the salient feature of Wolves it would be precisely this, that it is that gap-bridger, a novel written from the mindset of one world whilst furiously trying to get to grips with the dawn of another.

The plot feels less important to this novel than its sense of place, its physical landscape, an anchor constantly threatening to be torn free. At its centre, both in actuality and as metaphor, is the river that runs through Conrad’s home town. Conrad’s childhood and young adulthood is shaped by the river in both good ways and bad, it teems with significance, yet by the end of the novel it has been subjugated and destroyed by what planners like to euphemise as forward progress. We see a force of nature trammelled, customised, sanitized, commodified. Such incidental and wholesale destruction of natural environments continues to be one of the most insidiously dangerous and under-documented desecrations inflicted upon this small island by governments driven by expediency and lethally unsustainable short-termism. The world of Wolves highlights such accumulating minor atrocities to powerful effect. Ings has described Wolves as a novel about the end of the world: what he shows us is not the atomic fire or meteor impact or mutant plague-type of catastrophe so beloved in the mansions of Hollywood, but a slow apocalypse, the inexorable concreting-over of everything that matters:

On the way back to Poppy’s house we detour by the river. Or we try to.

“Where is it?”

Though Michel knows the town better than I do, he is as shocked as I am by this change: “Fucked if I know.”

It’s not in flood. It’s not in spate. It’s not even here. It’s been paved over. Canalised. There is no millrace, and no bridge crossing the millrace, just a horseshoe of low stairs and a concrete ramp for prams and wheelchairs, and where the river used to be, a bicycle lane winds through landscaped parkland, and the underbrush and low trees that used to conceal the water have been cleared away and lime green exercise machines put in their place. It’s nothing like I remember. It’s devastating. In a way I can’t put into words, it’s almost the opposite of what I remember, and as we walk I can feel the memories of my youth begin to fizz and react in the solvent of this new real. I stare at my feet, afraid of how much of myself I am losing. (p210)

And where does Wolves sit, exactly, within the landscape of British SF? In an editor’s note to accompany the ARC (I don’t know if this personal endorsement has been carried over to the published text, but I think it would be a shame if it has not) Simon Spanton of Gollancz lays his own cards on the table:

This is a bleak but oh so powerful read. But other authors have created wonderful art from bleakness. Dare I saddle Simon with this comparison? Yes, why not. Wolves reminds me quite a lot of J. G. Ballard.

In his review for The Guardian, Toby Litt furthers the comparison, with the proviso that to describe Wolves simply as Ballardian would be to offer an incomplete analysis, citing precisely Ings’s skill as a ‘landscape artist – almost an SF Thomas Hardy’ in defence of his position:

…what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain. Ballard was never concerned about a sense of place.

Litt is absolutely right to talk about those scraggy edgelands, and might well have gone on to mention the fact that Wolves is a liminal novel not just in the literal sense, but also in terms of its relationship with science fiction. Wolves is a novel that inhabits the edge-of-genre, that infinite and flexible space between the soundly mimetic and the outright fantastic.

In its intimate relationship with the British landscape, its tense preoccupation with personal alienation and social change, Wolves is clearly related to and descended from the those texts that have been variously branded ‘miserabilist’ or ‘mundane SF’ (or more recently, by Adam Roberts in a review at his blog, ‘Glumpunk’) but that are arguably the true heirs to the British New Wave, the new New Wave, if you will, a kind of ultra-near-futurism that holds up a divining mirror to contemporary reality. We read Wolves and remember Christopher Kenworthy’s decaying Barrow-in-Furness in The Quality of Light, the stark weirdness of Nicholas Royle’s Counterparts, Joel Lane’s fury at Thatcher in From Blue to Black. But it is in its relationship with the new New Wave’s urtexts, M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life and the story collection The Ice Monkey, that Wolves displays its allegiance most clearly. Harrison’s influence on Ings in Wolves feels pervasive and persuasive, a guiding principle. If Ings’s previous novel, Dead Water, is an intricate fugue, Wolves is its freewheeling toccata, a novel rife with personal anger that reads like it needed to be written. I sense that this is a transitional work for Ings, a move towards a fiercer, less restrained aesthetic and all the more effective for that.

One of the greatest dangers faced by British science fiction following the decline of the New Wave has been its co-opting by the commercial mainstream, its commodification at the hands of a nervous publishing industry in rabid pursuit of the next sure thing. As Ings himself recounts in his striking and bravely candid short essay at upcoming4me The Story Behind Wolves, when he first presented his then-editor with the manuscript of his new novel, that editor was less than enthusiastic:

My editor at the time told me Wolves was not publishable. He went so far as to say that publishing it would spoil my reputation.

Gather half-a-dozen writers together in a bar and the chances are they’ll all have a story like this. It’s sometimes hard to escape the feeling that British SF has suffered from a lack of direction in recent decades, a diminution of commitment arising at least in part from a willingness – fostered by an over-cautious publishing environment – to actively embrace the iconography and language of generic ‘sci-fi’ and all its bankrupt armoury of creative exhaustion. In a climate like this, it’s easy to forget that SF has been and always should be the literature of change, of innovation, of higher imagining. It’s in novels like Wolves – and in the willingness of the braver segments of the publishing industry to nurture and sustain their writers – that science fiction and the new New Wave will rediscover its purpose and its sense of direction.

(Jeffrey Alan Love’s unique and beautiful cover for Wolves – if this doesn’t win a strew of ‘best artwork’ awards next year there’s no justice in this world. Read Love’s moving account of how he came to create this cover here.)

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Locus recommends

The annual Locus Recommended Reading list, compiled by Locus magazine’s editors and contributors, has just been released. As always, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the year in SFF, as well as an invaluable reference point for word lengths and first publication details. I’m particularly thrilled to note the presence of both Stardust and Spin on the list, in the Collections and Novellas categories respectively. I feel honoured to be included – the Cellections category in particular showcases some amazing books, and highlights just how important and innovative the collection is becoming as a form. This is a fascinating subject in its own right actually, deserving of a separate blog post – I’ll have a think on it.

In the meantime, you can hear an in-depth discussion of just how the Locus lists are arrived at on the Coode Street Podcast #176

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Here we go again…

So – the full list of novels submitted for the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award was released, via SFX magazine, at 2pm today. Numbering 121 books in total, it clocks up a record number. With both the Kitschies and the Clarke receiving increasing numbers of submissions year on year, this would seem to signal a growing awareness of and enthusiasm for these awards specifically and for speculative fiction in general both within the literary community and among the public at large. This can only be a good thing. It is even better that the diversity of submissions is also increasing, with more translations, edge-of-genre novels and experiments in form appearing alongside the usual core SF suspects.  It is through the promotion, evaluation and celebration of such books that SF evolves. The Clarke exists precisely to encourage and facilitate this process.

There’s some great stuff on the subs list this year. By my first reckoning, I’d say there were more active contenders – by that I mean novels that are genuinely shortlist-worthy – than there were last year. This again is to be applauded. There are a good many equally possible, equally interesting shortlists hiding among those 121 submissions, and I have no doubt that if we had four sets of judges, say, working the list instead of just the one, we’d end up with four completely different shortlist picks and sets of emphases. That is both the beauty and the danger of the Clarke – there is no objectively perfect shortlist, just as there is no objectively perfect definition of what might constitute the year’s best science fiction novel. The shortlist that will be revealed to us in six weeks’ time will not be definitive, it will be a snapshot. Like all snapshots, it will illuminate but one moment, from a particular angle. It will tell part of the story but not all of it. No single snapshot ever can.

And that is part of why we love the Clarke so much.

I’ve had my usual fun with the list, which I’ll share with you here. Need I add that I have not read all of the books, nor even a goodly proportion of them. My thoughts and opinions are the product of research, sample-reading, reviews by sources I trust, and unabashed personal bias. Taking all that into consideration, here we go…

Firstly, my pick of six books that don’t have a prayer of getting on the actual shortlist, but should, absolutely, have been considered:

Andrew Crumey – The Secret Knowledge. Crumey is one of my favourite writers, full stop. Was his wonderful Sputnik Caledonia submitted for the Clarke back in 2008, I wonder? This guy is just a superb writer and criminally under-exposed.

Dave Eggers – The Circle. This is Eggers’s near-near future satire on the vast, corporate powerbases of our ever-expanding internet companies. The preview makes it irresistible and I’m eager to read the whole thing.

Adrian Hon – A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Oh, please let this be on the actual shortlist! A science fictional riff on the idea of that coffee table bestseller from a couple of years back, The History of the World in 100 Objects, Hon’s book is an edge-of-novel experiment in form that I find genuinely inspiring.

Andrei Kurkov – The Gardener from Ochakov. Kurkov is a wonderful writer, who uses speculative elements naturally and effortlessly as an integral portion of his stories. His writing is also extremely funny, as only sardonically aware, post-Soviet writing can be.

Robert J. Lennon – Familiar. I loved this so much I read Lennon’s previous novel, Castle, straight afterwards and loved that too. Wish I’d written this one myself.

Wu Ming-Yi – The Man with the Compound Eyes. I’ve read great chunks of this while standing in Waterstone’s and loved the mood of it, the texture, the imagery, the poetical weirdness. Eager to read the whole thing asap.

Shortlist I think the judges should pick (this is less obstinately esoteric than the one above, a genuinely plausible Clarke shortlist that would give the excellent Kitschies Red Tentacle a run for its money):

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam. I’ve got big issues with the Oryx and Crake series (the Crakers, mainly), but the quality of Atwood’s writing means she absolutely deserves a place at the table, and should be awarded one.

Ionna Bourazopoulou – What Lot’s Wife Saw. Several people whose opinions I value have been recommending this. I’ve read the preview and liked it a lot. Intriguing, independent, innovative science fiction.

Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being. I’ve just started reading this and am rapidly falling in love with it. This pick should be a no-brainer.

Christopher Priest – The Adjacent. Chris is one of the only writers producing ‘real’ SF as loved and accepted by core genre fans who could also hold his own on any Booker shortlist. This is a magnificent book, showcasing innovative ideas in terms of both subject matter and form. It would be madness to exclude it.

James Smythe – The Machine. I loved this book. One of my personal year’s best, in fact. It’s beautifully written, with never a sore sentence. Also, I just couldn’t put it down. Near future British SF of the finest calibre.

Marcel Theroux – Strange Bodies. Again, I’ve seen people I trust loving this, and I loved the preview. If this makes the shortlist I’ll definitely be reading it next.

Shortlist I think the judges might settle for (it’s safer than the above, more trad, and therefore much less interesting):

Stephen Baxter – Proxima. I’ve not read this, but I have given it as a Christmas present to someone who’s crazy about core SF. People are saying it’s Baxter’s best book in ages.

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice. Otherwise known as the steamroller. It seems to appeal across a wide sector of fandom. It’s the people’s choice.

Stephanie Saulter – Gemsigns. A well-received debut, classic dystopian tropes.

James Smythe – The Machine. With any luck, The Machine will manage to steal the soul of any jury, because it has everything.

Lavie Tidhar – The Violent Century. I have issues with this book, mainly because I’m just not a fan of superheroes. But Tidhar writes with flair and from the gut, always with serious intent. The general consensus is positive. I reckon it’s a cert.

Paul McAuley – Evening’s Empires. Paul Kincaid rates this as almost the equal of its series precursor The Quiet War. McAuley is one of our most articulate and intelligent writers of core genre. I have the feeling it would be a popular choice.

NB: All other things being equal, I would have named Kameron Hurley’s God’s War as a shoo-in for this shortlist, but I reckon its prior publication in the US will have counted against it. There’s a feeling that this book has been around for some time, and its impact on the judges will have been lessened as a result.

Six interesting outliers:

Pippa Goldschmidt – The Falling Sky. I really enjoyed this. It’s beautifully written, sensitive, as well as being a fascinating insight into the working life of an astronomer. The speculative element is very slight, though.

Matt Hill – The Folded Man. I love this book. In a just world, it should be shortlisted. I just have the feeling the judges might look askance at its radical interpretation of what SF can be.

Charlie Human – Apocalypse Now Now. Again, I started reading this in Waterstone’s while I was looking for Christmas presents and it’s insane but I found myself enjoying it immediately. It’s witty and it’s fun. I can see this being optioned for a movie.

Robin Sloan – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Easily my favourite from the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (debut novel) shortlist.

M. Suddain – Theatre of the Gods. This is massively overwritten but I couldn’t help admiring its madness. Sure evidence of an original and gifted writer at work.

Tony White – Shackleton’s Man Goes South. I’ve not read the whole of this yet, but I love the combination of documentary history and near-future SF. There are ideas here I’d like to work with myself.

Well, that’s my take on things. Now that’s over and done with I can sit back and look forward to reading other people’s predictions, meditations, and machinations. Let’s have some good rants, please!

As in any year, the most exciting thing about the Clarke is that anything could happen. I’m already itching to see the actual shortlist, to be revealed, so I believe, on March 18th. In the meantime, here’s to the judges – may their choices be wise ones.

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I’m delighted to announce that my novella Spin has made this year’s BSFA shortlist, in the Short Fiction category.

I’d like to thank everyone who voted for Spin in the nominations round. It’s a work that’s very close to my heart, and it really is massively gratifying to know that people are reading and enjoying it.

Congratulations to all the other nominees, not least my better half, for his hugely deserved shortlisting in the novel category for The Adjacent.

You can find full details of all three shortlists at the BSFA site here.

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Now that’s what I call tentacular

We were up in town yesterday, having lunch with colleagues and then taking part in the launch event at Blackwell’s for Simon Ings’s new novel Wolves (of which more here soon). Just before we left the house, I happened to see a discussion online (I forget precisely where now) about Hugo outliers, i.e those works that, in a saner world, should receive a strew of nominations but inevitably won’t. Someone mentioned Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. As his Satantango is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages now but still haven’t got round to, my attention was immediately engaged and I popped across to have a look at the Amazon preview.

It seems that Krasznahorkai could not survive without the semicolon. The first sentence of Seiobo There Below runs on, like the river it describes, for two-and-a-half pages. From the first words (“Everything around it moves, as if this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles,) one finds oneself immersed in beauty, in mystery, in the presence of a master.

How much more terrifying life would be if there were not those of us climbing mountains, working to send people to Mars, fighting to save the snow leopard, playing music by James MacMillan and writing sentences like Laszlo Krasznahorkhai.

I was impatient to hear word of the Kitschies shortlists before we caught the train. I needn’t have worried – a mass email brought the news to us as we travelled. My excitement at the Red Tentacle shortlist has still not subsided:

  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door

Here at last is the kind of shortlist that one might dream of for SF, a shortlist for a genre prize (‘to reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic’) that offers a true indication of the power, depth and literary excellence of which speculative fiction is capable and for which it should strive. In its breadth of styles, its acuity of vision, its strength of purpose, this shortlist is easily the equal of last year’s (really pretty good) Booker shortlist and (I would argue) then some. These are the kind of novels SF should be discussing and promoting for itself and arguing over, that remind any that need reminding that literature is a vocation, a life’s project, not just an escapist pastime or the product of vociferous marketing.

Any set of individuals with the nous and ambition to shortlist Anne Carson might equally have selected a writer like Krasznahorkai. These are clearly people with an unbounded understanding of what SF is and how far it can go. Well done those judges. Congratulations on what you are saying about speculative fiction.

This has been the most exciting, progressive and imaginative Kitschies shortlist yet. I am predicting it will give the Clarke more than a decent run for its money. Let us hope, for the sake of the Clarke, that it doesn’t beat it bloodily into the ground…

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Court Green/Women in SF #2

We’ve just come back from a week in the West Country, where we visited, among other places, the village of North Tawton, whose adopted son Ted Hughes is celebrated and commemorated with a blue plaque at the village centre.

Court Green is the beautiful old farmhouse he first purchased in 1961, together with the poet he was then married to, Sylvia Plath. The house has tremendous presence. One can only imagine that it has a long memory also.

We returned home – after almost a week of blissfully internet-free days – to discover that ‘Part One’ of this year’s submissions for the Clarke Award had been published over at the ACCA site. This consists of 33 novels, all the submissions that happen to be by women. The announcment led in turn to this rather predictable and variously inaccurate piece by David Barnett at The Guardian’s books blog. Barnett refers to ‘last year’s kerfuffle’ over an all-male shortlist, the award supposedly ‘dogged by controversy’. Well, as someone who studied last year’s subs list pretty obsessively and judged only two or three of the very few submitted works by women as active contenders, I think the selection of an all-male shortlist might be described as almost inevitable rather than surprising or controversial. It was certainly not the fault of the award or the judges. At least part of the problem, as 2013 judge Liz Williams articulated at the time, would appear to lie somewhere deep within the attitudes and selection processes of contemporary UK publishing. I might point to plainly visible examples of this – how can a novelist of Tricia Sullivan’s calibre not be currently under contract, for instance? – or to behind-the-scenes stonewalling – I personally know of several extremely talented women writers who have either taken years to find a publisher or who have been actively discouraged from using speculative themes in their writing. These are the problems we need to be outing. Plus, would it really have been so hard for The Guardian to have asked a woman to write about this issue on their blog?? Oh, irony. Most of the discussion I’ve seen online about the women-first submissions announcement has been from men…

I see what Clarke are trying to do, and OK, but the only effect it seems to be having is to leave everyone shuffling around looking a bit embarrassed, waiting for the rest of the subs to be announced so they can have a proper discussion about the potential shortlist. I don’t know. Perhaps someone thought we wouldn’t notice the women if they were mixed in among all those men.

The good news here is that one could easily make up a very fine shortlist from the 33 submissions announced so far. Which has got to be a great thing, no matter what one thinks of this particular little Clarke-experiment.

On the allied and similarly vexed subject of awards eligibility posts, I also found this forthright and eloquent post by Martin Lewis.

Yes, publishing is an industry but literature is an art. From my perspective, speculative fiction increasingly seems to be losing sight of this and we are moving to a situation where reviews and awards are viewed simply as publicity material. Worse, at any sign of push back to this cultural shift, authors play the victim. Slowly it is becoming the new norm for readers and authors alike… I find it very sad. I don’t want to live in a world where books are the same as toothbrushes and readers are just consumers. I want awards to be about readers recognising and discussing exceptional work.

Amen to that.

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Women in SF #1

As well as continuing with my occasional crime blog (next up, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me) I intend to run an irregular series of posts throughout 2014 on Women in SF. I want to kick off by talking just a little bit about Joanna Kavenna’s 2010 novel The Birth of Love, an exquisitely written four-stranded narrative that has a strong science fictional element within the text itself but more importantly – and this is always a key thing for me – whose overall effect is speculative, through its author’s willingness to experiment with form, and with ideas.

In spite of her being named as one of 2013′s Best of Young British Novelists, Kavenna is not nearly so well known as she should be. Her prose is unshowy and concise, direct and often forthright. It is also some of the most seamlessly well crafted and elegant prose I’ve encountered in ages. There is no attempt at gimmickry or what Chris always refers to as ‘funny voices’. Reading her, you come away with the inescapable conclusion that Kavenna has shared the information, the ideas, the emotions that were most on her mind at the time of writing, and the word ‘shared’ is important here, because that’s how intimate and intense the Kavenna reading experience feels.

This is a writer who was born to write. I’ve been drawing real inspiration from her clear aversion to anything resembling ‘rules’ in writing – she’s not afraid to expound ideas, to chart her thinking process, to let the novel take the form it needs to take. I have the feeling there’s a stubbornness behind the elegance, and that gives me great pleasure.

The first of the four narrative strands in The Birth of Love deals with the story of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century physician who changed the face of obstetrics and indirectly saved the lives of millions of women. We also meet Brigid, a woman in her forties about to give birth to her second child in the year 2009, Prisoner 730004, a reluctant political dissident in the year 2153, and Michael Stone, a middle-aged writer who lives across town from Brigid and whose debut novel The Moon is based around the life of Dr Semmelweis. When we first meet Michael, he’s being dragged along to a ‘celebratory’ literary lunch by his agent Sally, who is at pains to impress upon him how difficult it will be for an ‘unpalatable’ writer such as himself to find a wide audience:

“Men are unlikely to read a book about childbirth. It’s unfortunate, but there’s not much to be done. Women might just, but they’ll get put off by your obscure doctor. And the title, too – the title is rather awkward” But he didn’t want to change the title. “It sounds like a dreary symbolist novel,” said Sally. “And this rambling narrator, who seems mad himself. It’s as if you want to talk about everything, in one book. You can’t talk about everything in one book. It’s boring and it bores the reader.” (p103)

Reading this, you can only suppose that Kavenna is drawing heavily upon her own experience of such depressing – and depressingly common – encounters between writers and the literary infrastructure that purports to support them. This chapter is very funny but it’s awful too – and Michael’s fumbling yet passionate defence of his work is in a weird kind of way a hero’s solliloquy:

“I was trying to write about conviction…” – and the table nodded – “… about those who propose something that is not generally thought, and how they are dealt with. About those who are convinced of what they say, to the point that they continue to speak, even when everyone has turned away. And I thought that… all things being unknowable, all real things, all real mysteries, then…well, who can stand, really, and say: ‘I know: I understand’! I wanted to write… something about this… impulse… to tell others what is true.” (p99)

This ‘impulse to tell others what is true’ is what lies at the heart of all serious fiction, the idea that is served by all four narrative strands of Kavenna’s novel and that forms its core.

In Brigid’s strand of The Birth of Love, we observe her young son Calumn learning to speak, as we all must speak out to preserve our integrity, as every writer must struggle to express themselves in creating true work.

SF should welcome Kavenna’s interest in speculative themes with upraised hands and shouts of joy. She is so exactly the kind of writer we want and need on-side.

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