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The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #6

8) ‘The Other Graces’ by Alice Sola Kim

Anyway, you were getting off the bus in that nice neighbourhood when the handle of the violin case slipped out of your hand. You stopped to wipe your sweaty hand on your t-shirt. Someone pushed up behind you and said, “Out of my way, chink.”

Who does that? Surely the dickhead utterer of such words must have been green-skinned, a thousand feet tall, dragging a spiked club behind it as it picked and ate its own boogers. But, no, it was just some pretty white girl, a little older than you, highponytailed and tall. She didn’t even look at you as she walked past.

The science fiction element of this story is ingenious but incidental. Trying to write about ‘The Other Graces’, which involved me so utterly I felt short of breath while reading it, leaves me wanting to tell you just read it. The way this story is told – that loose, idiomatic style that is nonetheless replete with original turns of phrase and striking imagery – is as ingenious as the SFnal conceit itself, doing things with point of view that are such an integral part of the story you barely notice their cleverness. Some small portions of the text are written in Hanja, which I cannot read, but that felt vital to the impact the story made on me nonetheless.

I’ve not come across Alice Sola Kim’s writing before, but I am delighted to learn that she’s currently working on a novel.  In the meantime, luckily, there are more of her stories online for me to read.

 

9) ‘Boojum’ by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day/if your Snark be a Boojum! for then/You will softly and suddenly vanish away/And never be met with again.” 

(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark)

As well as the invariably lethal variety of Snark as described in Lewis Carroll’s epic poem, it is worth noting that ‘boojum’ was also the name given to a never-finally-commissioned variety of supersonic cruise missile. In Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s story a Boojum is an organic, sentient creature – a kind of space-whale, I think – that humans have learned to corral and control as intergalactic starships. The Boojum in question is the Lavinia Greenlaw, known as Vinnie to her captain and crew, a company of space pirates. Black Alice is an engineer, and has formed a particularly close bond with the ship on which she serves. Her ambition is to become chief engineer, but that ambition is not to be realised. When Captain Song picks the wrong craft to attack, and Vinnie begins to show dangerous signs of non-cooperation, Alice is brought to a decision that will reshape her universe…

It made sense, from what Black Alice knew about Boojums. Their infants lived in the tumult of the gas giants’ atmosphere, but as they aged, they pushed higher and higher, until they reached the edge of the envelope. And then – following instinct or maybe the calls of their fellows, nobody knew for sure – they learned to skip, throwing themselves out into the vacuum like Earth birds leaving the nest. And what if, for a Boojum, the solar system was just another nest?

… Jesus and the cold fishy gods, Black Alice thought. Is this why the Marie Curie ate her crew? Because they wouldn’t let her go?

‘Boojum’ is one of only two stories in this anthology that I’d previously read, and I was delighted to encounter it again. It’s great fun – this is beautiful worldbuilding – and gives you everything you’d want to find in a New Weird romp about space pirates. But the fun is thoughtfully underpinned by some serious meditations on the nature of non-humanoid intelligences and the exploitation of sentient beings. Wonderful characterisation, smart dialogue. I was left wanting more.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #5

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

Mary Anning made it into Jules Verne’s books in the guise of her monsters, but never into Austen’s. She wouldn’t have made sense there with her bits of gothic history, her lightning, her science, her creatures. She wouldn’t make sense in any story until the story changed. 

Pioneer palaeontologist Mary Anning, novelist Jane Austen, and the protagonist of Austen’s novel Persuasion, Anne Elliot, all exist in the town of Lyme Regis in the same space and time. Karen Joy Fowler has put them there, and as the three figures circle each other – two real, the third the imaginative creation of the second – we are bound with each word by the feeling that they could have met, this could really have happened, even though it couldn’t have done.

‘The Science of Herself’ is not science fiction as such – but it is a piece of speculative fiction of the most superior quality. The elegance of Fowler’s conceit, the flawless overlapping of fact with fiction, the vital sense of place – these aspects of the story among others make this work both captivating as story, informative as history and supremely admirable as a work of art. The writing is – well, just magnificent, really. The kind of writing that makes you want to give up and pushes you forward simultaneously. Fowler just rocks.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #4

6) ‘Spider the Artist’ by Nnedi Okorafor

My husband was a drunk, like too many of the members of the Niger Delta People’s Movement. It was how they all controlled their anger and feelings of helplessness. The fish, shrimps and crayfish in the creeks were dying. Drinking the water shrivelled women’s wombs and eventually made men urinate blood. 

There was a stream where I had been fetching water. A flow station was built nearby and now the stream was rank and filthy, with an oily film that reflected rainbows. Cassava and yam farms yielded less and less each year. The air left your skin dirty and smelled like something preparing to die. In some places, it was always daytime because of the noisy gas flares. 

Eme lives with her husband Andrew in a village that has been polluted and despoiled by the oil industry. She wants children, but has not been able to become pregnant. She dreams of becoming a teacher at the local secondary school. She both fears and grieves over her husband, whose abusive personality has been further degraded by the struggle to win back land from the oil companies. Her one solace is her father’s guitar, a beautiful, antique instrument for which she has a virtuoso talent. Her favourite place to play her music is the land behind the house, close to the oil pipeline that runs through everyone’s backyards. Here, she can be herself – and it is here that she one day finds herself with an unusual audience…

The government came up with the idea to create the Zombies, and Shell, Chevron and a few other oil companies (who were just as desperate) supplied the money to pay for it all. The Zombies were made to combat pipeline bunkering and terrorism. It makes me laugh. The government and the oil people destroyed our land and dug up our oil, then they created robots to keep us from taking it back. 

The robots in question are the Anansi Droids 419 – eight-legged, spider-like AIs that patrol the pipeline at frenetic speed, killing anyone who so much as touches the pipeline and generally acting as a super-fast, super-vigilant, super-ruthless police force for the oil industry, no prisoners taken. When one of these AIs not only begins to show an interest in Eme’s music but to display musical talent of its own, Eme is both wary and entranced. Gradually she is drawn into a kind of comradeship with the thing. But can this alien intelligence truly be trusted?

The story ends horribly, and with a warning. Are the Zombies meant as avatars of the forces exploiting Nigeria and its people? Can any Zombie be trusted, even a good Zombie, when their agenda is so different? Can any alliance between villager and Zombie be anything other than precarious and temporary? This is a story about loyalty, and about exploitation. It is also a story about Eme, who is such an interesting and powerful character one longs to meet her again.

I’m still thinking about this story and its implications. A tremendous piece of work.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #3

4) ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ by Lucy Sussex

We’re in the post-apocalyptic world of the Crash. An anthropologist, or ‘story eater’, from the north has travelled to a town in the Highlands of Suff to observe a court case that has ‘brought everyone down from the mountains and into the valley':

When I woke, I tested my tape recorder – a precious thing, not because it was a genuine Tech artefact, but because it was a copy, its workings painstakingly rediscovered. Of course, it wasn’t as good, nothing was, for we would never be as rich, nor as spendthrift, as our forbears. For over a century now, since the Crash, we had been adapting to an economy of scarcity. It was the adaptations, rather than the antiques, or the neo copies, that interested me – particularly the Rule Houses, and at their centre, the Queen Polly Andree. How would it feel, to have multiple husbands? And what would happen if you grew tired of them?

The court case the has brought everyone into town concerns two women, Sadry and Idris, who have chosen to reject the system of polyandry that holds sway in the southern highland settlements – they want to live together as a lesbian couple.

Our oldest book, though, isn’t medical – it’s called Erewhon, but it’s not about my House, but a dream, a nowhere place. In this book things are reversed: the sick are criminals, and the criminals regarded as ill. 

Idris: Are we criminal, or ill?

Bel: Both, probably, in the eyes of the men. 

Sadry: The book Erewhon seemed strange, but not much stranger than the Rule. Or the way I would live in my house, with Idris, if the court permits us.

Sussex evokes her world and its complex webs of social relations with vigour and skill. I can see why this story is important, and as a fine example of a particular kind of polemical science fiction it belongs in this anthology, absolutely. But for me personally the didactic style of ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ proved a bugbear. Also, I have a pet peeve about the way so many writers insist on saddling their post-apocalypse worlds with vast strews of capitalised proper nouns:  Rule, Queen, House, Crash, Scavengers, Tech, the list goes on. You find this in everything from The Chrysalids to The Bone Clocks and it has become distinctly tiresome. Perhaps I’ve just read too many post-apocalypses, but it’s amazing how much more convincing and more contemporary said texts instantly become, simply by replacing these annoying capital letters with their lower case equivalents.

I admired ‘The Queen of Erewhon’ for its directness and for the skilfulness of its arguments, and although it’s not a story I warmed to personally, it fits right in alongside texts such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army and should be similarly appreciated.

 

5) ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ by Tori Truslow

This story is many things: Chapter 7 of a fictitious biography of one Elijah Willemot Wynn, a delicious feminist inversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, a starred-First-calibre example of New Weird aesthetic.

We enter a world where the Moon is populated by mer people. You can get there on the Great Ice Train:

We stood shivering in our thick coats on that desolate northern platform… the train rose out of the water like a ghost. We stood, gaping idiotically at it – but not Elijah. He mounted the step and strode into the carriage. Emboldened, we followed – several slipped and fell on the frozen steps, but at last we were all aboard. I had followed Elijah into the first carriage. Directly before us was the captain’s car, completely filled by the intricate engine, pipes connecting jars and tanks of strange half-substantial things. The sea glowed all around us… we gazed up through the ceiling to our destination and felt a queer tug as the Moon opened her pores.

In some cases you need to be kissed by a mermaid to survive the journey. You can fall in love with a mermaid, but you can’t have a sexual relationship with one because that way lies madness. Also, it just doesn’t work out biologically.  The mer-moon is altogether not a sensible place for a human to be.

Wynn’s ‘biography’ is substantiated with all manner of secondary sources: poems, extracts from treatises on ‘modern faery studies’, contemporary memoir, poems. I’m a total sucker for this kind of compendium narrative, and Truslow’s invented secondary sources are of the very best kind in that they never read like Victorian pastiche. Rather, they feel disconcertingly authentic, the kind you’ll feel tempted to Google, just in case…

The language of this story is sumptuous and sparkling. More than that, the story as a whole seems boundary-less, in that it hints at a whole world beyond the page, one that is so skilfully evoked that suspension of disbelief is effortless.

There is not one thing about ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ that I didn’t love. Glorious.

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #2

2) ‘Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang’ by Kristin Mandigma

I’m not too familiar with the aswang, but as I understand it, the aswang in Filipino tradition and folklore is a predatory, werewolf-like creature that hunts at night. During the day it can shapeshift into human form, living among and even befriending ordinary people. The aswang in Kristin Mandigma’s story is smart, sharp-tongued and proudly socialist. It does not take kindly to the suggestion put to it by the editor of a science fiction magazine that it submit a story as proof of its existence. Among many other things, the creature’s letter contains a sharp critique of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers:

I do not care if the main character is a Filipino infantryman. I assume he is capitalist, too. Furthermore, since he is far too busy killing cockroaches on godforsaken planets in a spaceship (which is definitely not a respectable proletarian occupation), his insights into the future of Marxist revolution in the Philippines must be suspect at best.

This story is entertaining and very funny. I loved its sarcastic tone of voice – the communist aswang could have a career in TV, no problem, a prospect which it would undoubtedly view not so much with horror as with scorn.  Mandigma packs an awful lot into a few pages, and in the tradition of all the best satirists, she utilizes humour to make us not only laugh at ourselves but also re-examine our own motives and culpability. The purpose of her story is ultimately serious, raising issues of othering, cultural appropriation and the continuing ignorance of these very issues within the SF heartlands. The fact that the aswang’s letter is a letter from America further complicates the subtext. As with Samatar’s story, Mandigma’s piece becomes still more potent on a second reading. I enjoyed it a lot.

 

3) ‘Somadeva: a Sky River Sutra’ by Vandana Singh

This beautiful and highly complex story takes as its inspiration the Kathasaritsagara, an 11th-century Sanskrit text in eighteen volumes, weaving together numerous tales and legends of northern India. The narrator of Vandana Singh’s story is Somadeva, the Brahmin poet and scholar who set down the original stories of the Kathasaritsagara. His spirit has been restored to life and captured in a glass casket by Isha, a woman of the far future who is travelling the galaxy in pursuit of stories, much as Somadeva did in India in his own time. Isha fell in love with the poet when she first read the Kathasaritsagara for herself. Now she looks to him for inspiration and guidance as she relentlessly pursues the truth about her own lost past:

When she was a young woman, [Isha] was the victim of a history raid. The raiders took from her all her memories. Her memories are scattered now in the performances of entertainers, the conversations of strangers, and the false memories of imitation men. The extinction of her own identity was so clean that she would not recognise those memories as her own, were she to come across them. What a terrible and wondrous age this is, in which such things are possible! 

Singh is speaking not just of an imagined far future but of our own age, of course, where one of the most damaging impacts of colonialism has been to rob people of their own historic narratives, replacing them with the myths and mores of the invaders. As the story progresses, we are made to feel ever less certain of what is happening and where. Are we with Somadevi in his own time, where he sends himself on ever more precipitous flights of the imagination in an effort to save his beloved, the queen Suryamati, or are we on the spaceship with Isha, collecting stories that are cosmology codified, the origins of the universe expressed as parable?

‘Somadeva: a Sky River Sutra’ contains vast seas of information and idea, so much that a proper analysis would occupy many pages. Vandana Singh has crafted a story that is not only beautiful,  but that conveys highly complex concepts and thought processes about fiction, about history, about the act of retelling, all in a language that manages to be both poetically tactile and bracingly direct. The more I dwell on it, the more moving and accomplished it becomes. As an Englishwoman I am starkly aware that I may only be brushing the surface of what is contained in this story – I know nothing about the Kathasaritsagara beyond the tiny bit of reading I’ve done online for the purposes of understanding the background to Singh’s story a little better – but I’m in awe of what Singh has produced here, and I identified strongly with her ideas about the fundamental importance to every culture not just of the art but of the act of storytelling.  I totally love it that she’s also written herself into her story.

She has spent much of her youth learning the lost art of reading, leaning the lost scripts of now-dead languages. Inside the cover of the first volume is a faint inscription, a name: Vandana. There are notes in the same hand in the margins of the text. An ancestor, she thinks.

A wonderful piece. A keeper.

 

The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women #1

In her introduction to the recently-published Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, editor Alex Dally MacFarlane writes:

“Science fiction is always changing: at its best, it is always exciting, always saying something new. To say that the best science fiction of recent years is pushing the genre into new places is not a new statement – but I am incredibly excited by what the science fiction of recent years is doing. More than before, writers from around the world and of many backgrounds – gender, sexuality, ethnicity – are being published in English, in original and in translation. Their voices are changing science fiction, taking it into more futures and looking at our present and past in more ways. If science fiction is defined as looking at as many worlds as possible, it is an excellent time to be a reader. 

I wanted to take a snapshot of this.”

The anthology contains 33 stories. Looking down the table of contents, I was immediately struck by  how diverse it is – there are well known names here, but there are plenty of rising stars too. There are writers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with a wide range of stylistic and thematic concerns. At first glance, this book really does seem to present an informative snapshot of where science fiction is coming from today, and MacFarlane appears to have succeeded admirably in fulfilling her mission statement for the anthology.

All of which excites me. On the spur of the moment, I decided it might be interesting to work my way through the anthology in ToC order, blogging each story individually as I go. I don’t intend this to be a review as such – more a personal, off-the-cuff response to what I find on the page. I’ve read stories and in some cases novels by many of the writers featured, but I’m going to do my best not to think about what I already know of them, but simply to concentrate on each single story, as I encounter it. So here goes:

1) ‘Girl Hours’ by Sofia Samatar

This story is dedicated to Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer who worked as a ‘computer’ at the Harvard Observatory in the 1890s, and whose discoveries in the field of stellar luminosity were later utilized by Edwin Hubble in determining that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in our universe. Needless to say, Leavitt received little to no recognition within her own lifetime.

Samatar’s piece is in four short sections: Notes, Conclusion, Body and Introduction. The Notes are both a factual introit to Leavitt’s life and work, and an integral part of the formal structure of the text as a whole. The story hovers in the interstices between prose and poetry. The longest of the four sections, Body, explores the many different meanings of the word ‘body’ within the specific context of Leavitt’s experience:

The body was called a shining cloud, and then a galaxy. The body comforted mariners, spilt milk in the southern sky. The body was thought to be only 30,000 light years away. .. the body is generous, dedicated, seated again, reserved, exacting, brushed and buttoned, smelling of healthy soap, and not allowed to touch the telescope.

If this work contains a pivotal image, then perhaps it is formed by those words and not allowed to touch the telescope. I would describe Samatar’s story as passionate, muscular, angry. It is formally innovative, incredibly concise, inspired in its use of poetic imagery. Every page contained an image or an idea that I found original, thought provoking or otherwise useful.

I loved this work. It grows in strength on a second reading. There is enough material here for a novel, of course, but the fact that Samatar has achieved so much in just a thousand words or so is yet more evidence – if any were needed – of her very real, very solid literary talent. This piece fills me with energy and determination, and is a wonderfully promising opening to this anthology.

 

Favourite Hallowe’en reads

I’ve seen a lot of people posting their best-loved Hallowe’en reads this week, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few of my own.

1) Peter Straub – Ghost Story.

A modern classic, and rightly so. Straub’s stories are always complex, lush with detail, and multi-layered. You’re already deep into the story before you fully realise what’s going on, that wandering-in-the-forest feeling epitomises everything a Hallowe’en read should be. Anyone who lists slasher movies or serial killer thrillers among their Hallowe’en favourites is missing the point. Hallowe’en – All Hallows Eve – is the night when spirits traditionally walk abroad. This is a time for exploring spirituality – both of the dark side and the light – for coming to terms with hard truths, for delving into the secrets of the past and perhaps uncovering something less than pleasant in the process. For the four ageing members of Straub’s Chowder Society in Ghost Story, this is a time of facing up to the consequences of their past actions – big style. I adore this book. I adore Straub’s erudite, meandering and occasionally obscure style. I’m also very fond of John Irvin’s 1981 film based on Ghost Story which, though it cannot hope to convey all the subtleties of the original novel, seems to me to be the epitome of what a great Hallowe’en movie should be: quiet, reflective, mysterious and chilling at the core.

2) Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching

One of my very favourite ghost stories of recent years, this short novel plays out big issues on an intimate stage. Its evocation of a particular milieu – the English seaside town – is perfectly executed, its portrayal of relationships, the closeness and distance between people, is razor sharp in its accuracy and pathos. White is for Witching is equally a tense family drama and a forthright examination of the divisions within contemporary British society. I read this in a single sitting. Haunting and masterful.

3) Joyce Carol Oates – Bellefleur

Ah, Bellefleur! This is sumptuous, gorgeous, genius, the vampire novel that dare not speak its name. The language, the irony, the beauty, the madness, the STORY! Oates’s intuitive understanding of the gothic is both articulate and sublime. For those who don’t have time to sink themselves into a 600-page epic just now, try the stories in Haunted instead. This exemplary collection was my first introduction to Oates and she’s been right there at the centre of my personal pantheon ever since.

4) Ramsey Campbell – The House on Nazareth Hill

I honestly do think this could be the perfect Hallowe’en read. It’s a haunted house story, basically, and as my first encounter with Ramsey Campbell’s fiction I’ll never forget the impact it made on me. I couldn’t put it down, and kept reading it far later into the night than I should have done. The central character, Amy, remains with me still as a powerful presence. And that inner room with no windows – brrrrr!

5) Clive Barker – The Books of Blood

Seminal works in the field of British horror literature, Clive Barker’s two collections of stories contain everything from ghosts to monsters to ur-beasts to mad obsessives in the best Dr Frankenstein tradition. Particular favourites among the stories include ‘The Forbidden’, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, ‘The Skins of the Fathers’, ‘Son of Celluloid’ and how could I forget ‘Rawhead Rex’?? But by far the best way of reading The Books of Blood is to start at Book 1 and read the whole lot through chronologically. Although the stories aren’t linked as such, their cumulative effect is considerable and their overall ethos is such that they demand the concentrated reading you might lavish on a novel. The Books of Blood were groundbreaking in their time and they have lost none of their power. Anyone – and I mean anyone – interested in writing horror fiction should and must read these stories.

And what will I be watching tomorrow evening? The Haunting (Wise’s 1963 version) is perhaps the quintessential Hallowe’en entertainment, and is pretty faithful to the original Shirley Jackson masterpiece into the bargain. If it’s atmospheric ghost stories you’re into then Amenabar’s The Others is pretty good, too.  I have a crazy, perfect love for the 1993 portmanteau film Necronomicon, the third segment of which scared me so badly the first time I saw it that I couldn’t sleep for a weekend (I tried it out on some friends a few months later – they were not amused, and I ended up having to bring a duvet downstairs for them all to hide under). My favourite film adaptation of Dracula is still the Coppola, no matter what anyone says. And for a dose of sheer Hallowe’en madness – with flying head-drillers and trans-dimensional dwarfs – what about Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm?

On balance though, I think tomorrow evening might be the perfect time to revisit a little-remarked-on but for me unforgettable adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Released as a TV movie in 1973 and starring James Mason as Polidori and David McCallum as Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein – the True Story is lush and overlong and over-the-top and with enough of the earnestness and passion of the original story to make it compelling. I first saw this in 1974, on the night ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. My parents were having a Eurovision party downstairs (they were young, they were foolish) and my brother and I were treated to an unlimited supply of Twiglets and the free use of the black-and-white portable TV in their room upstairs. I was nine years old, my brother only seven, so I’m really not sure if Frankenstein was the kind of viewing Mum and Dad had in mind, but we watched it anyway. It seemed to go on for hours, and I was mesmerised throughout. It was many years before I saw it again, but I still remembered whole scenes perfectly and, perhaps because it was one of those so-important early influences, it had lost none of its power for me. Jane Seymour’s night at the ball, Elizabeth in the ice, the final pursuit to the cave. When I saw that Frankenstein – the True Story was to be released on DVD, I pre-ordered it at once. And having talked this out here I’m decided – tomorrow at around 9pm I’m going to unleash the monster from its cellophane wrapping…

Women in SF #5

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What a gift of a book.

Kiernan’s novella The Dry Salvages was published as a standalone in 2004 by Subterranean. It won no awards, and so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it wasn’t even nominated for any. I can only assume this was because its limited print run of 250 copies meant that it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, because this little work is as close to perfect as it is possible to come. If there was a better novella/long fiction published in that year I’d be hungry to read it.

The story takes place four hundred years in the future. Our narrator is Audrey Cathar, a palaeontologist specialising in alien fossils and last surviving crew member of a deep-space mission to investigate the remains of an abandoned alien mining operation on a moon named Piros. Now an old woman, she gathers her courage and her memories to finally put down in writing what happened to her and her colleagues when they set out to discover what became of those who landed on Piros before them. This is not a happy story. But it is deliciously compelling and joyous to behold in its formal accomplishment. It is also a page-turner. I was saying to Chris just the evening before I read Kiernan’s novella, how tiring and how tiresome it is sometimes, to be forever chipping away at other people’s fiction to find out what they’re doing, how they did it and where they went wrong. ‘What I’m looking for is the book,’ I said. ‘You know, the book that will make me forget I’m a writer, just for a bit, and have me chasing the story to the point where that’s all I want to be doing.’

You know, the way it used to be before you started writing for publication.

The Dry Salvages felt like exactly the book I’d been looking for. But the fact is, Kiernan’s fiction always makes me feel this way. She doesn’t make me forget I’m a writer, exactly – it’s more that I feel so instinctively in tune with what she’s doing that I don’t have to worry about it. I know the writing will be lovely, I know she will interrogate reality in a way that feels urgent, and real, that whichever direction she chooses to go in, I’m not going to be disappointed. I can leave all that stuff up to her. Me, I can just turn those pages and revel in a story that will remind me of the ambitions I nurtured when I decided I was going to take my writing seriously in the first place. And ‘revel’ is the word. It’s wonderful to be reading a writer this talented. It’s something to be cherished.

There’s nothing that you would call precisely ‘new’ in The Dry Salvages. You could point to the Alien tetralogy or even the inferior-to-Alien but highly watchable and sometimes hilarious (‘I don’t need eyes where I’m going’) Event Horizon as precursors of the ideas on display here. But what marks out Kiernan’s novella as exceptional is the superlative execution of those ideas, the economy and ease with which concurrent themes – posthumanism, gender stereotyping, environmental collapse – are interwoven and made a piece with the core narrative, the intricacy and beauty of its formal construction. This novella is ten years old now, yet it has not aged a day. There is nothing showy or ostentatiously ‘current’ about it, and in its exploration of contemporary themes it never makes the mistake of letting its guiding ideologies overbalance the story. Like all the best science fiction, The Dry Salvages is approachable by anyone, even if they’ve never read a word of SF in their life. Like all the most convincing science fiction, it takes its starting point as now: there’s no attempt to exoticise the future here, to give it strange accents or outlandish clothing. What we see here might be tomorrow, only with today’s certainties removed.

Kiernan is never afraid to let her literature grapple full-body-contact with genre – these stories are about monsters, they’re about otherworlds, they’re about the supernatural and they’re about people falling prey to powers beyond our realm. They don’t fanny about, these stories. They don’t hint at monstrosity, only to sidle away from the genre aspects at the last minute and afford us a ‘rational’ explanation for what has happened. Kiernan is quite prepared to speculate that sometimes the only rational explanation is that the monsters might really be out there. But equally and why the hell don’t more people try this? she is never afraid to let her genre be literature. She gives her monsters and the people that encounter them, the cities or lonely places or deep-space stations the literary weight such subjects demand to be convincing, the psychological insight that does them justice.

One of the unfortunate things about SF du jour is how quickly and how embarrassingly it dates – at least in part because it’s consciously speaking to a community of fans who are familiar with the issues, who know about the hierarchies, who kind of love the in-fighting. But when that particular cohort of fans and hangers-on moves on, or gets ousted by a new crowd, what are we to make of the fiction that ‘season’ engendered? All too often, not much.

The writers who tend to produce what we know as classics are usually a law unto themselves. I think The Dry Salvages could become a classic, the kind of story people will still be devouring with pleasure and amazement a hundred years from now, the way we still read The Time Machine, or The Yellow Wallpaper, or Frankenstein.

We read these stories because we are thrilled by them, and horrified. We return to them because in their language and their ideas there is always more to discover.

I happen to believe that Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the greatest writers on the planet right now. I think it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get more recognition for that, and that few readers or writers outside of genre circles will even have heard of her.

Strange domains

M. John Harrison has a new Kindle Single out! It’s called ‘The 4th Domain’ and it’s fantastic. For me, it has a real feel of Course of the Heart about it – characters mired in their own disjuncture, deeply wrong goings on, a city on the slide towards inexorable decline.  This is a dark story of frayed edges and indeterminate conclusions. I loved it – it goes straight on to my ‘best of’ list for 2014 – and at only £1.53 on Kindle it would be ridiculous not to read it. You can buy it here.

And talking of sensible ways to spend your money this week, do please consider donating to the annual Strange Horizons fund drive. Strange Horizons continues to be one of the very best online SFF short fiction and review venues out there, and with its active commitment to increased diversity this magazine deserves every ounce of support you can give it. You can make your donation here. Every little helps!

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

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