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…

 

Brief updates

Firstly, I’m delighted to announce that Nevsky Prospects will be publishing a Spanish edition of The Race, currently scheduled for spring 2017. Huge thanks to Marian and James Womack for their continuing commitment to my work. I’m thrilled that this is happening.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m currently hard at work on the third draft of The Rift. I’m very excited about the book now. It’s now just over a year since I first began writing it, although the basic idea (and some of the characters) had been floating around inside my head for quite a bit longer. At this stage, the novel feels fully formed and really here.

Immediately prior to starting in on this third draft, I had a lot of fun first-drafting a horror story – quite a long and involved one – which I’ve been commissioned to write as part of a project that should be seeing the light of day sometime next year. It’s been quite a while since I wrote any horror – the story I wrote for Aickman’s Heirs in the summer of 2014, in fact – and I don’t mind admitting it felt great to be back in that territory. In fact, it’s inspired me to read, write and blog more horror next year. Plans are already afoot, so watch this space!

L’Adieu

J’ai cueilli ce brin de bruyère
L’automne est morte souviens-t’en
Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps Brin de bruyère
Et souviens-toi que je t’attends

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Come in Howard, your time is up

Cthulhu BarneyChris’s ‘Howard’ was awarded to him in 1996, for The Prestige. Although he was delighted to accept the award itself, he always considered the trophy to be a thing of unsurpassed ugliness, and until I went up there to fetch it so he could take this photograph, the unfortunate effigy was residing in our loft.

POINTS WORTH REMEMBERING THIS WEEK:

  1. The trophy is hideous – there’s no denying it.
  2. The World Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award trophy are not the same thing. The former is a highly regarded juried award, designed to recognise the year’s most outstanding works of fantasy literature. The latter is a pewter statuette on a wooden base.
  3. Changing the form of the latter does not in any way diminish, impugn or invalidate the worth of the former.
  4. H. P. Lovecraft was a horror writer, and a niche horror writer at that. He rarely travelled anywhere and when he did he didn’t enjoy the experience. His literary output was similarly restricted. He also held racist views that would be considered extreme by most standards. The idea that Lovecraft can be an appropriate emblem for ‘world fantasy’ is wrongheaded, and that’s putting it mildly.
  5. Given that an increasing number of readers, critics and above all World Fantasy Award nominees are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of Lovecraft’s image being used as the figurehead for the World Fantasy Award, it is difficult to understand how anyone who truly cares about the award as a standard-bearer for world fantasy can themselves remain comfortable with it.

A dear friend of mine won a Howard this week. Many other good friends and esteemed colleagues have either won or been nominated for Howards in previous years. I understand nostalgia – I’m British, for goodness’ sake, our engines run on the stuff. What I don’t understand is why there are people who seem to be conflating the current physical representation of the World Fantasy Award – Gahan Wilson’s bust of H. P. Lovecraft – with the award itself. Why many of these same people seem determined to read the recent WFCB decision to retire the Howard as an attack on Lovecraft’s literary legacy is beyond me.

I’m not a Lovecraft expert but I have read him. I consume his work sparingly these days – too much at once and the overblown, repetitive drone of it can become tedious – but there are things about his oeuvre that I find consistently inspiring. His disturbingly persuasive conception of ‘cosmic horror’, of course, but for me personally as a writer, Lovecraft’s obsessive portrayal of introverted scholars ferreting their way through dusty libraries and untold reams of obscure documents in their feverish search for evidence of Elder God involvement in human affairs awakens more than a shiver of horrified excitement each time I revisit him. Lovecraft’s influence on weird fiction is far-reaching and ongoing. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the kind of wilful negation of documented fact that tries to insist that Lovecraft the man wasn’t really a racist, but a product of his time.

H. P. Lovecraft was certainly a complex, conflicted and frequently misanthropic individual. There is an argument to be made that some of the more outlandish expressions of his racist views arose either directly or indirectly from his general loathing and mistrust of the human condition. But to pass off the views themselves as anything but egregious, to soft-soap them as little more than the ubiquitous background racism that was then endemic is an act of self-delusion, or to put it less kindly, a lie.

“The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.”

(Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926. More here if you can stomach it.) 

We can choose to call this ignorance, we can choose to call this paranoia, we can choose to call this heightened sensitivity to social change. We MUST call it racism. It’s contemptible and vile and cannot be gainsaid. Admitting these things does not mean we have to consign Lovecraft’s oeuvre to the cultural scrapheap. Those who feel the need to constantly apologise for Lovecraft would be advised to ask themselves why they rush to do that. His work stands by itself – it doesn’t need our apologies. There can be no apology or excuse for the views on display in that letter to Belknap Long. These two facts stand side by side and we have to live with them. Any discussion of Lovecraft’s work that does not acknowledge the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s racist worldview is incomplete.

Far more worrying, at this point in time, than Lovecraft’s racism – Lovecraft died almost eighty years ago, remember, he’s beyond pamphleteering – is the number of notable voices in the field of horror fiction who clearly consider it more important to retain a particular incarnation of an award trophy than to work towards any kind of true understanding of why an increasing number of readers, writers and critics now find the signal that trophy sends inappropriate and offensive. That certain authors and editors should abuse the platform they are privileged to occupy by dismissing people’s rightful anger and discomfort with the Howard as shrill whining or malicious censorship is, quite frankly, appalling.

It is also the most urgent demonstration of the need for change.

ON LOVECRAFT: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq could hardly be cited as the most reliable witness in the case of Lovecraft’s racism, to say the least, but as one writer exploring his passion for another there’s no doubt that Houellebecq’s extended essay makes for mesmerising reading. As a bonus, it also includes an introduction by Stephen King and two HPL originals.

ON THE NEED FOR CHANGE: Lovecraft’s Racism and the World Fantasy Award Statuette by Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2011:

“I too am deeply honored to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It feels so so so right and so so good. The awards jury was clearly progressive and looking in a new direction. I am the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel since its inception in 1975. Lovecraft is probably rolling in his grave. Or maybe, having become spirit, his mind has cleared of the poisons and now understands the err of his ways. Maybe he is pleased that a book set in and about Africa in the future has won an award crafted in his honor. Yeah, I’ll go with that image.”

World Fantasy Awards – what did I say? by Sofia Samatar, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2014:

“I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.”

THE NEXT GENERATION: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has provided inspiration for new writers even from the time HPL was still in the active process of creating it. Indeed, Lovecraft encouraged and welcomed the idea of others working in his universe. The Mythos is, if anything, more popular than ever before, with writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin R. Kiernan producing works that – to be perfectly honest – often outshine ‘the master’ in their psychological acuity and stylistic virtuosity. There is a lifetime’s worth of superb material to be explored here, but for new voices it’s worth checking out Paula Guran’s anthology New Cthulhu and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent all-women anthology She Walks in Shadows (gorgeous cover, too). For those seeking an instant online tentacular fix, Ruthanna Emrys’s ‘The Litany of Earth’ is a fine example of how skilfully Lovecraft’s prejudices can be turned on their head. The tale is of of one Aphra Marsh, and some deeply traumatic memories of a town called Innsmouth… Another favourite recent story comes from Michael Cisco, one of the most brilliant and consistently underrated writers in the field of weird. It’s actually an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Unlanguage, but reads perfectly well as a standalone short story. The Mythos isn’t referenced directly but it doesn’t need to be. Needless to say I am eager to read Unlanguage in its entirety.

The Race – cover reveal!

I’m delighted to be able to reveal the brand new cover for the brand new Titan edition of The Race, which will see its official launch date next July.

the race cover (2)

I am so thrilled with this! Julia Lloyd has created a beautiful design, strongly contemporary and yet also timeless, an image I could never have imagined beforehand, and yet one that felt perfectly right from the instant I saw it.

You can read the official press announcement – as well as an excerpt from Chapter One – over at Tor.com.

Crime blog #11

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning
(T. S. Eliot The Waste Land)

carthage oatesIt still amazes me, how critics still seem not to ‘get’ Joyce Carol Oates, how often her prodigious talent is spoken of dismissively, in belittling terms – ‘oh, Joyce Carol Oates, there’s just so much of it!’ – as if her very prodigiousness, the prolific expression of her talent could be a reason to reject it as something freakish and therefore unworthy in some way. 

‘She writes so much – is any of it any good?’

I’ve heard this said, seen it written. It often crosses my mind, and seems increasingly clear to me, that were Joyce Carol Oates a man her position as a ‘great American novelist’ would be assured. The broadsheets and the book blogs would all have been arguing over Carthage this summer instead of Purity. I wish they were. I wish they would. I think Oates is one of the greatest writers currently working, and I think that all the more because her books are not perfect. To me, each new novel (and I’ve probably read about half her output) feels like the next chapter, the next essay in an ongoing experiment, an ongoing project to discover the possibilities of the modern novel.

Some of these chapters are ragged, some are too long, some are just astounding. All are meant, involved, and acutely intelligent, the most complete expression of her intent the writer could manage at the time. All are worth reading, and all will stay with you, a quality which, surely, is one of the defining factors of great literature.

Fans of speculative fiction and horror in particular will be familiar with Oates’s interest in the gothic. Her most recent essay in the horror genre, 2013’s The Accursed, was a masterpiece of ambition and reach, spanning an American century, examining the guilt and tarnish at the heart of American privilege. I’ve written about the ‘Lovecraft chapter’ in The Accursed before, and it remains a shining memory.  I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the book’s sharp and canny mirroring of a perhaps-best-forgotten yet nonetheless fascinating horror novel of the 1970s, John Farris’s All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, turning the embarrassingly misused tropes of that novel against each other, like wild dogs.

But Oates is just as interested in crime fiction as she is in horror, and it’s precisely novels like Carthage – ambiguous, labyrinthine, incautious, imprecise – that I’m forever bemoaning the scarcity of in the genre.

Some of those who care to examine Carthage as a work of crime fiction might be tempted to define it as one of those (always intriguing) works – Patricia Highsmith made a speciality of them – which pose as crime fiction but lack its defining element: that is, a crime. This is one way of looking at the book, but I would counter that Carthage is a story about a murder – just not the murder that is foregrounded.

The crime is fully described. A person is arrested and imprisoned. These two events are not connected in the way that they should be.

Carthage tells the story of Cressida Mayfield, a precocious and alienated nineteen-year-old who goes missing from her home in Carthage, upstate New York. We learn of the desperate search for this lost young woman, of the violence that appears to have precipitated her disappearance, the parents, the sister, the suspect (who happens to have been engaged to the sister), the half-truths and evasions, the blank spaces in memory and chronology that form the core material of such addictive mysteries. Fans of Oates will instantly be catapulted back to her earlier examination of this subject – the devastating impact of violent crime upon a previously stable and contented household – in her 1996 masterpiece We Were the Mulvaneys.

This first section of the novel is then cut off in mid-stream, with no resolution in sight. We tun the page and the jolt of unexpected revelation is physically palpable. What follows is strange, and much less easy to define: hundreds of pages of back-and-forth story. Gradually we learn everything, and perhaps more than we felt we needed to know, about Cressida Mayfield and what happened to her. The last people to find out what we have come to accept as the facts of the case are those most directly affected: those whose lives these facts have ripped apart.

I loved this book, even when I wasn’t loving it, even when I was wishing Oates would get to – or rather get back to – the point. I loved it because it is the kind of text that reminds readers that literature can aspire to be more than simply a pastime, an entertainment. That it should ask questions to which the answers are not always knowable or uncontested. That it should present itself in forms that can appear unfinished, as if the writer were still working on the manuscript up until the point where it needed to be delivered, still enmeshed in the world of those characters and the moral and psychological problems they represent.

Texts like these – where the writer’s engagement with the subject remains visible to the reader – I find to be amongst the most rewarding and significant.

I also found it odd, reading Carthage. There’s some stuff in it that overlaps, quite a bit, with what I’ve been writing myself these past eighteen months. I’ll never be Oates, of course, and the backgrounds of our work – American, British – are so very different. But I can’t help but feel that pulse of an interest simultaneously shared, a synchronicity that is disconcerting as much as it is satisfying.

Mainly though, I’m just left wanting to read more Oates.