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The village oak

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

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

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

And this is where I go running:

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

Loncon and after

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

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

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

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

fragment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And another thing…

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

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

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

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

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

Launching The Race

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

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

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

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

Which is good to hear.

On reflection

Writer and arts project manager Irenosen Okojie had this to say in today’s Observer about the Booker Prize longlist:

“If the panel was more diverse, then perhaps the list would be more inclusive. Here’s a radical idea – next time, perhaps the panel could be made up of an equal number of men and women as well as a few non-white people.”

Reading her piece, which is forthright, well argued and above all passionate, it seems to me that she is right on just about every level. Because although many of the individual titles on the Booker longlist may have strong literary merit and a reason for being, there is without a doubt something irredeemably safe about the list as a whole. What is it saying, exactly, this list? Is it saying that literature is ring-fenced, the property and prerogative of a narrow, self-replicating caste not so much of reader but of judge?

More than careful consideration, literature needs passion. Literature should not be in a vitrine, it should be out there. We need books to be authentic, raw, interrogative, questing, angry.

I was brought up short by what Sergio de la Pava said in a recent interview about the process of submitting his manuscript (A Naked Singularity) to agents and publishers:

“Replies varied. Some said ‘not interested’, others said ‘sounds great, send it to me’. I think what I found most dispiriting was that quite a few people were into the concept of a book about criminal justice, but when confronted with something that was complicated and not easily quantifiable, that interest disappeared. It was humiliating. It was horrifying.”

I felt so angry on de la Pava’s behalf, that a writer of such obvious passion and fierce originality faced with such hidebound attitudes should almost have been put off writing altogether. A book is allowed to be entertainment. A book might even be allowed to be an elegant intellectual bagatelle – provided of course that you’re reasonably well established as a writer – but complex and difficult? Hell no.  Eimar McBride came up against almost identical obstacles here in the UK:

“I really don’t think they have tied everything up neatly. I’m not interested in irony and I’m not interested in clever. I’m interested in trying to dig out parts of human life that cannot be expressed in a straightforward way, that don’t fit neatly into the vocabulary and grammar that are available. To do that you have to make language do something else. I didn’t really know how to do it, I just tried and that’s what happened… I didn’t want to crush what I liked about the book, which was the rawness of it. The one idea that I brought the whole way through was that I wanted to try to give the reader a very different type of reading experience.”

Should this – a very different type of reading experience – not be precisely what the judges of the Booker Prize are looking for?

My initial enthusiasm for the 2014 Booker longlist stemmed mainly (as with this year’s Clarke) from relief, that at least there was some good stuff on it. The good stuff is still good stuff, but on reflection, I think that in terms of literary discomfort, this year’s Booker longlist is falling short. As a writer, I have always found my greatest strength in looking to those writers who have gone before me, who have marked out some of the ground I nurture the ambition to encroach upon. As Okojie suggests, it would be wonderful indeed to think of new writers from any and every background being able to look at the Booker longlist and see their own personal champion in amongst it, marking out the territory, providing that secret kick up the arse to get them moving. That can’t happen with this list, or at least not nearly as much or as widely as it should.

The only discomfort the 2014 list provides lies in its seeming exclusivity. What are we doing?? Things need to change. Let’s hope at the very least that next year’s judging panel comes closer to the ideal that Okojie suggests above.

Booker’s Dozen

The longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

 

My initial impressions are that I am liking it quite a lot. I feel a little disappointed that there are not more women on the list – but the women that are there are fantastic. I never got around to blogging about how much I loved Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a book that succeeds in being original, moving and fiercely important all at once. I’m delighted also to see Booker recognition for Siri Hustvedt, compellingly drawn to this her most recent novel, and indeed The Blazing World is already on my Kindle, demanding to be read. (For those who want to find out more about it – and you should – do please read this very special review by Amal El-Mohtar here.) And as for Ali Smith, what can one say except that she’s one of the most inventive and original writers working in Britain today.

How could I not be excited about seeing David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks on the list? It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to all year in any case, and as Mitchell’s most SFnal work to date, this can only be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker. Richard Powers is another writer I admire hugely – for the bold reach of his intellectual ambition as a novelist, for his fascination with music (unlike so many, Powers can actually write about music in a way that feels real), his wholehearted willingness to adopt speculative ideas into his personal lexicon.

Howard Jacobson? Science fiction? Two concepts I would never previously have included in the same paragraph in a million years. Jacobson is a relentlessly clever writer – the fact that he clearly knows it is the piece of evidence that counts most heavily in the case against him. Still, it’s interesting that the Booker judges have selected another science fiction work and I’ll be eager to see what Jacobson has come up with.

I’ve not read Joshua Ferris at all yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has received especially favourable press. Again we see a nominally mainstream writer fencing around speculative ideas, with issues of identity theft and the double coming to prominence. I want to read this.

Paul Kingworth’s The Wake is notable for having been crowd-funded (it’s the only indie press title on this year’s longlist – as with the paucity of women writers, this seems a bit of a shame) and sounds like a Riddley Walker/Harvest mash-up. Fascinating.

Of the remaining longlistees, it’s nice to see Aussie Richard Flanagan up there – and he’s a Tasmanian to boot. Flanagan’s writing is always exemplary and I can’t see this being anything other than excellent.

The only novel I feel irrationally prejudiced against is David Nicholl’s Us. This is probably very wrong of me, but I can’t get my head past the warehouse-sized supermarket piles of One Day, or the gruesomely mawkish film adaptation of same, which qualified as my most finger-down-the-throat awful cinema-going experience of its given year. (It’s worse even than Richard Curtis’s About Time, and that’s saying something.) The brief plot summary in The Guardian’s longlist rundown describes Us thus: “Douglas Peterson faces life alone, as his son is about to leave for college, and his wife for good. But Douglas is devising a plan to use a family holiday around Europe to win back their love.” Heaven help us. I can’t help feeling there must be fifty titles more worthy of a place on the Booker longlist.

Still, every jury should be entitled to its moment of madness. Going by past performance, it’s in the nature of the game.

Women in SF #4

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan

I love hearing about other people’s trades. We were in a cabinet maker’s workshop yesterday, hearing a young craftsman tell us about how his father, a former train mechanic, turned to working with wood when he was made redundant from the railways. I still remember an evening spent in a car park in Bedford, waiting for the AA to turn up after we inadvertently drove over a nail. The guy who dealt with our call-out changed the tyre in a matter of minutes, all the while recounting hair-raising stories of performing similar tasks on the hard shoulder of the M1 while huge juggernauts rushed past every ten seconds. I find specialism of any kind urgently compelling, and I could have listened to that AA mechanic all evening.

Knowing this, it won’t come as a surprise that I love books that feature work as a strong component. And the first section of Tricia Sullivan’s new YA novel Shadowboxer is all about work – the work of being a fighter. Jade Barrera is seventeen years old. She is a troubled teenager with a heavy baggage of personal and family problems. She is also a talented practitioner of mixed martial arts, just beginning to make her mark on the sport. When she lets her temper get the better of her (again), her trainer gives her an ultimatum: get smart or get out. He also offers her the chance to spend some time training in an authentic MMA gym in Thailand. Jade is given to understand that saying no to this opportunity is not an option.

I found the whole first third of the book spellbinding. A favourite novel of mine is Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit, large portions of which consist of little more than move-by-move descriptions of chess games, and I loved this initial section of Shadowboxer for much the same reason. Tricia Sullivan knows her MMA and her passion shows to wonderful effect. Jade herself is so well drawn that we enter her world with ease. Shadowboxer is being marketed as a YA novel but rich in detail and sophisticated in psychology as it is, I think this is a book that readers of any age would relate to.

The fantastical component is also strong. While she is in Thailand, Jade stumbles into a supernatural world of treachery and child trafficking, populated by human monsters and Buddhist deities. Her guide and confidante is Mya, a young Burmese girl who has been forcibly separated from her family and enslaved by Richard Fuller, a vile and corrupt individual who wishes to utilize Mya’s special talents for his own evil gain.

Mya’s sections are rich in imagic detail, chilling and beautiful and intensely felt. I actually wanted more of Mya, her story and background, more about what happened to her family and what brought her into contact with Richard Fuller. Of Fuller himself we learn less still, and if I have a criticism of Shadowboxer it is that the interleaving of the two stories – Mya’s and Jade’s – feels overly hurried. I think there is enough material here for Mya to have a book all to herself – and I suspect that readers (this one included) would have welcomed a measure of background information on the Himmapan Forest and its mythical beasts.

That being said, Shadowboxer is a very special book, partly because it feels so personal and so deeply felt, partly because of the very lovely quality of the writing. There is nothing artificial or cynical or manufactured about the art of Tricia Sullivan. What you find when you read her is originality, spontaneity, a deal of beauty and above all a spirit of enquiry that – truly – is what speculative fiction is all about.

Shadowboxer is published by Ravenstone/Solaris in October 2014.

We’re here!

The relocation has happened. The final few days leading up to it were pretty hectic, and the day of the move itself became fraught with problems when the guy choreographing our removals became convinced his truck wouldn’t fit down our road. Our stuff was so late arriving we had to settle the cats in the house and spend the night in a hotel. But unloading was successfully initiated early the following morning and we now have our hundred boxes of books safely awaiting shelving.

We are also online. We have spent our first days here painting our offices and the living room. We are eager to get the house into a functioning and comfortable state so that we can return to our various projects as soon as possible.

Our new house is an old schoolmaster’s cottage in a small village in North Devon. The surrounding landscape is unbelievably beautiful and I know it is going to take some time to assimilate it, to learn to be inside it. Both Chris and I have lived in Devon before – I studied and worked in Exeter for almost twenty years, and Chris lived at the western edge of Dartmoor for a couple of years in the 1980s – but this is a whole new place, unlike any in our previous experience.

So a lot of things are happening at the moment. One of those things is that as of the September issue (254) I’m going to be writing a column for Interzone. I’m extrememly excited about this, and hope the column will develop into a kind of ongoing enquiry into what SF is and where it is going.

Another piece of news to shout about is that The Race is now up for pre-order at the NewCon Press site. I have an ARC and it is beautiful. I have seen images of the limited hardback edition and that looks even nicer!

Hopefully we’ll be back to business as usual in the very near future.

Back in the Lot

While boxing up books this week, I’ve had Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot on audiobook to keep me company. I think I’m right in saying that SL is actually the first of King’s novels I ever had contact with – not through the text, but through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV adaptation, starring David Soul and James Mason. I was thirteen at the time, and I don’t think I’m the only one who had the bejeezus scared out of me by the image of little Danny Glick, scraping at the window to be let in. I don’t know what it says about me that I forced myself against my will to watch Part 2, just to prove to myself that I could do it, but that’s how it was.

It was another twenty years before I read the novel. I remember being impressed by it, especially by King’s evocation of American small town life. Listening to the audiobook this past week I’ve found this aspect of the novel, if anything, even more impressive. In his essay on SL for his Rereading Stephen King series for The Guardian, James Smythe says:

When I was younger, it was the second half that enraptured me: the rush of the hunt (on both sides); the thrill of not knowing who would and wouldn’t survive; and the pain of how much this affected the characters… Now, it’s the start that I love most. It’s the slowest of slow burns, all hints and drip-feed. King infuses it with descriptions that start you thinking about vampires before they even factor in the novel. “She dipped her head to suck at the straw,” goess one passage, describing the drinking of a root beer. “Her neck was beautifully muscled.” Another, during a kiss, reads: “She thought: he’s tasting me.” When the chaos finally unfolds, it’s a real payoff. You care.

You certainly do. So much so that I’m still undecided about King’s decision to have Susan Norton turn vamp. Dramatically of course he has to – she’s the Lucy Westenra figure – but emotionally I still feel nooooo that’s so unfair. Such personal involvement on the part of the reader is a sure sign of a writer doing their job.

It’s more than that, though. This time around, I was even more captivated by some of King’s writing about the town – those little prologues at the beginning of each section, depicting the town waking up, or the Marsten house on its hill as the sun goes down. There are passages here that feel galvanised by inspiration, feverish with it. It’s the real deal.

King wrote this novel – his second – when he was just twenty-eight years old. His approach to vampires – the heavy Catholic iconography, the rigid adherence to the Stoker version of the mythos – feels dated now, but that’s not King’s fault. SL was published in 1975, decades before the vampire industry kicked into gear. At the time, what he was doing – recreating a nineteenth-century classic in a truly modern idiom – must have seemed very new to him, as indeed it was. The fact that the writing itself still stands up in spite of the narrative showing its age a little is sure proof of its quality.

Salem’s Lot is a novel of passion – for the story, and for the craft of story. This is what most communicates itself to readers, what makes the novel endure. We need more books like this. More twenty-eight-year-old writers with guts enough to slam down their soul on the table and dare us to take it or leave it, because that’s how it is.