#weird2016: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

ana kai tangata s.nalligators – an effective little story, even if it isn’t particularly original. Russell is haunted by a recurring dream in which he sees his father falling, headless, into a quarry pit. The pit exists – his father used to take him and his brother Tommy on hikes there when he was a kid – but his father’s death was prosaic by comparison – cancer – and no one ever fell into the pit so far as Russell knew, those were just rumours. When an ex-girlfriend sends him a Fortean magazine with an article about the pit, citing its supposed connections to Satanic ritual, Russell decides to lay his ghosts once and for all. Pity he decides to take his two young daughters with him…

The sexual politics of this story are pretty dodgy – poor Russell’s had to ‘settle for’ his wife Wendy, who spends too much time being a mathematician and who also isn’t Navajo enough for his taste (having been adopted and not grown up on the Rez, presumably). He spends his idle moments lusting after Cassandra Manygoats, who was raised on the Rez and is also ‘single and hot as hell at 26. And oh, those legs. Not to mention that ass!’. Also. Russell’s mom is so racist she’s a walking cliché. It would help if Russell’s petty self-centredness were tied in more firmly with his eventual fate, but the connection isn’t made clear enough for us to be certain it’s what the author intended. More subtle characterisation would have been a plus all round. Never mind, though – the story is compelling, drawing you inexorably onward towards the inevitable denouement. This is where Nicolay’s writing is at its best, with his genuinely atmospheric descriptions of the ‘Satan pit’ showcasing some first rate use of language:

Across the pit he could see the phrase from the Weird NJ photo. The ‘T’ in ‘MEAT’ had faded some, and now resembled an ‘L’. The quarry walls were mostly pinkish, but nearer the top, rainwater had darkened long streaks to a muddy rose. Stretches stained by the black surface soil had the look of deep crusted burns or wounds. Faded boreholes marked the exposed rock surface at intervals. Nearer the water these scars were fresher and closer together. In some places, they looked very fresh. 

Good opener.

The Bad Outer Space – a short piece told from a child’s point of view. Child plays in park with (possibly imaginary) friend Sari, who teaches him how to see the ‘bad outer space’. Kid’s mom is messing around with bad men. Kid’s other (real) friend Vincent disappears suddenly. A deftly written short, but predictable and not really in a good way. More embedded misogyny. I don’t tend to like the child’s PoV trick unless it’s genuinely original (see Scott Bradfield’s brilliant first novel The History of Luminous Motion). ‘The Bad Outer Space’ reads like any number of similar magazine stories – nothing really wrong with it, but it didn’t do much for me.

Ana Kai Tangata – After a bad experience in New Mexico, spelunking enthusiast and archaeologist Max heads to Easter Island, tagging along as part of an expedition dedicated to researching the invertebrate life of the island’s cave systems. As with any small and isolated group, tensions between the various parties soon begin to escalate. Max feels himself very much the unpopular outsider. He is also still haunted by what happened to him – or more specifically what happened to his friend Brant – during his previous expedition, and finally confides in Cassie, whom he has the hots for:

He looked at Cassie across the table. Gray-green eyes, golden brown hair that curved into the base of her neck, lean, hard body below. Tits small, but high and hard. Yeah, he could tell her everything, anything. Fuck it.

Because of course the size and relative firmness of your tits is bound to be directly indicative of how good a confidante you are. Anyway, Easter Island seems to be having a weird effect on Max generally. Max’s friend and caving mentor Altazor has a theory about that:

“There is something very strange about this island, something no one has touched on, at least not in print. It changes everything: people, animals, even plants. What grows here tastes different from crops on other islands… I think there was something here before, something older than the Polynesians… This is something not human, something down in the substrate, in the very bedrock, down below the halocline where the salt water meets the fresh.”

There is a very nice sequence about almost getting lost inside a cave, and the fugue state that overcomes Max in the immediate aftermath of that experience is superbly rendered. On the whole though I found this story unsatisfying. Easter Island is made to feel like a convenient backdrop, an almost incidental exotic location for a pretty run-of-the-mill Elder Gods-type narrative. If there had been more focus on the invertebrate study – something to give any kind of genuine perspective on the island – this weakness might have been ameliorated. More women problems, and Max never really becomes interesting enough for us to give a damn about him being chased down by a giant trans-dimensional woodlouse at the end.

On the level of craft and readability the story is fine – I enjoyed it plenty. I think at least some of my adverse criticism is coming from the fact that this collection has been over-hyped, and I was expecting something vastly original as a result. At this stage, I’m finding Nicolay to be a solidly competent and highly readable writer with a good feel for language – but there’s nothing ground-breaking here in terms of subject matter or formal approach, at least not so far.

Eyes Exchange Bank – This is a weird one. After being dumped by his girlfriend Lisa, Ray journeys to the town of Lansdale to see his old mate Danny – he reckons they’ll have a few beers, talk about old times, set the world to rights. When he arrives though, things seem far from well. First he has a near-accident and damages his car. Then Danny – and Danny’s apartment – don’t seem at all as he remembered them. The town itself is horrible – a dead zone, depopulated and shot to shit. They head off to the mall for a pizza and (hopefully) a bit of action. Ray gets plenty of action, all right – but he sure ain’t coming back for more. Of anything.

For much of its length this story reads like an anxiety dream, and the gradual accumulation of sinister details and small things going wrong reminded me of Ramsey Campbell’s stories. Ramsey always nails a mean ending though, and in this case at least that is one thing Nicolay doesn’t do, relying on zombies ex machina to deal the killer blow. The ending fits the atmosphere, in a way, but there’s so much disjuncture here, and not in a good way. All the stuff about Poe feels like stage dressing, with the ‘premature burial’ tacked on opportunistically without having been earned. Is Danny a zombie too now? He tells Ray he has a ‘whole new way of seeing things’ – courtesy of his visits to the eponymous Eyes Exchange Bank, no doubt, but once again the idea feels half-baked.

There seems to be a theme developing here: some nice writing, a good sense of place, but with a hollowness at the centre that leaves you feeling cheated.

Phragmites – Austin Becenti is an archaeologist and a caver. His holy grail is the mysterious Cave 34, tucked away in the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico state line and inaccessible as fuck. An archaeologist named Earl Morris discovered it in the 1920s, but he never wrote up his report and so far as anyone knows he never went back. All researchers have to go on are the seven human skulls Morris brought back with him, each of them displaying the marks of what looks like trepanning but can’t be – no one was into trepanning, not there, not then. When Austin receives a phone call from his cousin Dennison, telling him he’s found the cave and is willing to lead Austin to it, our intrepid explorer thinks the offer may be too good to be true. There’s bad blood between him and Dennison, who holds him in contempt for abandoning his Navajo heritage. Plus there was some trouble over a woman. Cave 34, though – how can Austin resist? And when he pulls up in the parking lot of the McDonald’s out by Shiprock, his cousin seems friendly enough. It’s a nice day, too. Everything’s looking good, and Austin’s almost prepared to let bygones be bygones. Trouble is, Dennison isn’t…

Well, this is a cracker. The sense of place in this story is scintillating, not to say resplendent. Here at last is the wealth of specialist detail relating to geology, landscape, even caving equipment that I would have welcomed more of in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’. Even the lead-in episode in the dodgy motel is brilliantly effective, and once we get into the endgame there is some solidly breathtaking writing on display:

The high pines gave way to open space, several broad ponds of lingering snowmelt sprawled across a shallow depression, every pool way more full than normal this late in the year. Dennison chose a route between the ponds and Austin followed. The entire basin must’ve been flooded in the spring since the ground was crazed with mud cracks, the thin interlocking crusts crumbling to dust beneath their steps. Jagged bands of leached alkali spread out around each pond. Approaching one he saw dead brown weed choking the wide lens of stagnant water, ranks of fuzzy fronds straining to reach the surface yet failing, the still pool fixed as a vast decrepit moss agate, dismal exercise in vegetal futility.

There’s loads of stuff like this, all of it directly relevant to the story, anchored to it with the strongest kind of caving rope, and Nicolay works tirelessly to make every detail count. Admirable, brilliant stuff. Austin and Dennison’s final miracle-nightmare traverse of the sheer rock face that is the only means of accessing the cave left me breathless with vertigo. When a writer pulls off a stunt like this it’s wonderful to see. Of course, we can make a solid guess at the ending as soon as we learn – pretty early on – that the Navajo name for Cave 34 is ‘the spider’s cave’ or something like it. But so what if we can see the monster coming? I enjoyed this story way too much have it spoiled for me by an ending that would be exceptionally difficult to navigate perfectly, in any case.

I started off thinking it was a miscalculation, to have two long stories about caves in a single volume, but ended up feeling just the opposite, that this kind of fixation is actually a selling point, rooting the drama in the writer’s own personal obsessions and areas of expertise. I loved it that there was a continuing character – a walk-on part for Altazor, whom we last saw hanging out in a bar and spinning yarns in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’, and who here, we learn, was also Austin’s adviser at UNM. ‘Too bad Altazor’s gone,’ Austin reflects. ‘He left UNM ’cause of some kind of scandal. Never found out what it was. He was just gone one day and no one would talk about it.’

It would be nice – it would be very nice – if Nicolay were to consider including even a single female character who didn’t slot into his ill-conceived archetypes of whore, bitch or eye-candy (frequently all three simultaneously) but that depressing caveat aside, ‘Phragmites’ is a great piece of writing.

The Soft Frogs – Jaycee used to be a bug nerd. Now he’s a fake punk with severely diminished college prospects, a rank day job and an insatiable sexual appetite. His favourite hangout is the Melody, a club with legendary music credentials and an ever-circulating supply of willing female company as an added bonus. Here he meets Eileen – a potentially interesting woman character at last from Nicolay, but no, wait, she turns out to be a monster. Literally.

Environmental pollution meets body horror meets boring male entitlement. Trite, slight and obvious. Honestly, Jason, you were far more interesting when you were a bug nerd. Ah well, too late now. Those damn frogs…

Geschaefte – Once again, we encounter almost (Ramsey) Campbellian twists of fate and truncated futures as we follow Cal into a hell of his own making. Or is it? Calvin is a college student, obsessed with setting up a poetry magazine to honour and emulate his hero, Jack Spicer, the poet of unknowing. Like other Nicolay ‘heroes’, Cal is a rampant misogynist and a bit of a scumbag. His odiousness finally catches up with him when his girlfriend Risa dies on Thanksgiving, in her parents’ garage, in circumstances that are more than just a little bit Cal-related. Consumed by guilt and self-pity, rejected by his family and unable to continue at college, Cal finds himself couch-surfing his way around the western United States, eventually ending up in the San Francisco apartment of a reluctant comrade, Jerrod. How did Cal first meet Jerrod? He can’t quite remember, and there’s weird shit going on in the apartment across the hall. As Cal’s perceptions become more twisted, so does the version of reality that envelops him. The stench of decay and bottled piss (read it and see) is tangible. We sense that things will not end well for Calvin, and they don’t.

The odd overwrought metaphor notwithstanding, this is one hell of a well written story. The Spicer connections – the unknowable nature of poetry, voices from the beyond (check out the link) – make ‘Geschaefte’ all the more fascinating and add an extra layer of meaning. As a study of mental breakdown, as a horror story, the piece is equally riveting. Of course, we have to put up with copious amounts of stuff like this along the way:

Whatever it is that clicks had clicked for him. Despite horn-rimmed glasses she wore as if actually shooting for the mousy look, her wide, bright eyes and her long, dark hair were anything but plain, and her worn grey sweater swelled with its high hard brace of tight bound breasts.

But then just a few paragraphs later we have this little snatch of brilliance, and plenty more besides:

Cal’s consciousness drifted fitfully down into REM with the rhythms of some flat hulk of marine debris seesawing into the depths. Soon he found himself as usual, in a sterile simulacrum of his current setting, dreaming he was laid out on the futon, dreaming he was dreaming. But then his vision inverted, so that rather than a lifeless replica of Jerrod’s apartment, he occupied a gray lit void in the shape of his own form. Within it he was become a diminished thing, size of a small bird or large insect, suspended somewhere in his own hollow and heartless torso. The lost moth of his soul blatted about the emptiness inside him, at first more disoriented than panicked, though a feeling of entrapment took hold of him almost at once.

I get it – or at least I think I get it: Cal is an appalling man-child and gets what he deserves. But I can’t help thinking – and I have to say I’m thinking it all the time as I read this collection – that the stories would work even better, would be more satisfying, more devastating, more intellectually rigorous, more artistically powerful, if Nicolay could bring himself to feel even a passing interest in the idea of women entering the narrative as characters rather than sex-toys. There’s a truly great, timeless story here in ‘Geschaefte’ just waiting to happen.  and it wouldn’t take much tweaking. As it is, we feel too easily justified in giving Cal the finger and moving on. Which is a shame – again – when so much of the writing here is so good.

Tuckahoe – What is it with weird fiction and cops wandering into stuff they don’t understand?

Not our luckless Sergeant Howie this time, but Detective Donny Cortu. Like our favourite Scottish policeman before him, Donny has happened upon something strange and is determined to get some answers. Had he known what kind of answers he was going to get, he may never have started his investigation in the first place…

Donny Cortu is a police detective. Following a shady incident involving witness protection, he’s been seconded to the backwoods of South Jersey, where instead of solving complicated murders, he spends his days picking up the pieces (literally) at the site of road traffic accidents near the nothing town of Tuckahoe (also a Native name for a species of edible underground fungus – this will become relevant later). Donny desperately wants out of there. He wants to regain the trust of his wife Martina. He wants job satisfaction. When a mysterious extra appendage (stick with me here) is brought in as part of the carnage from Tuckahoe’s latest highway fatality, Donny seizes the chance to investigate. His search leads him first to Carlsen, a cop from another squad room who has a bizarre story to tell, and then out to the broken down homestead of the inbred Storch family, which Donny comes to believe may harbour something more than ornery locals with a personal hygiene problem.

Guess what? He’s right.

Nicolay may well have stuck to his personal dogme in the strictest sense by not mentioning Cthulhu or Innsmouth or any other Mythos stuff by name, but Tuckahoe is pure Lovecraft, of course, with ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as its incestuous cousin. Not that this matters. ‘Tuckahoe’ is as engrossing and entertaining as it is predictable, with the partial use of the ‘club story’ format working perfectly to its advantage. Whilst I might quibble with the use of ‘ick’ and ‘glop’ as nouns outside of dialogue, this is a small gripe. The writing here is as polished and compelling as elsewhere in this collection, and how many words for repulsively oozing substrate are there anyway?

I was also extra-excited by this story, as I thought for a moment we might have an actual woman with an actual speaking part. Alyssa Campion may only be the pathologist’s assistant, but she’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to handling body parts. We might infer from this that she would have no problem telling a leering womaniser like Donny Cortu where to sling his hook, but what’s this?

“May I ask you a question, Detective?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Are you a faggot, Detective? Are you gay, or is there something else wrong with you?”

Donny spluttered at the receiver – “Hey! Waitta – ” – but she plowed ahead.

“You don’t act gay, but I don’t know, maybe it’s different for cops. But if you’re straight, maybe you can tell me why I waited the whole damn morning for you to put the moves on me and that creepy old man does it instead… Was that some kind of stunt you two worked out together? Because if it was I didn’t think it was very funny.’ 

Oh Christ, tell me this is not going to be some kind of sexual harassment suit. For once he’d controlled himself. He hadn’t even hit on her – that was all Bilo. “No! No. Nothing like that. It’s just -.”

“Yeah sure. Whatever. So now you’re going to make a girl do all the heavy lifting? I guess it really is true that chivalry is dead.”

Oh dear. This is wrong, not to say vastly embarrassing, on so many levels. And of course Alyssa turns out to know a hell of a lot more about the Storch place than she initially lets on.

This is the longest story in the book – it’s almost a short novel – and although it could easily be argued that it’s too long – altogether too many people telling other people what they heard once from someone else – I wouldn’t agree. I always enjoy stories like this, wheels within wheels, and this one rolled along for me without ever dragging.

Even so, though, ‘Tuckahoe’ could have been so much better – like all the other stories in the book – if Nicolay had refrained from piling on the dudebro attitude. It’s so repetitive, so dull. I know horror is supposed to be transgressive – but unfettered misogyny isn’t transgressive, it’s just tedious.

Am I beginning to see an attempt at a weird kind of inverse feminism at work in Ana Kai Tangata? All Nicolay’s protags are sexist arseholes, all end up devoured by forces from the beyond. In ‘Tuckahoe’ there’s even a (wholly unconvincing and uncharacteristically clunky – did someone persuade Nicolay to put this in, thinking it might help to ‘explain’ the general dudebroness?) monologue by Alyssa, talking about how it’s impossible to be a woman and survive around these parts without turning misogynist.

There are better ways around the problem. Such as writing women into the story properly and actually giving a damn about them being there.

*

Ana Kai Tangata is a good collection. All the stories, to varying extents, are intense and highly readable – it was never a hardship to return to this book and I frequently found myself mentally taking my hat off to the author for one ingenious reversal or another. The writing is of a consistently high standard and veers close to brilliance on many occasions. There are enough hallmarks of genuine originality – the caving, the arid, imposing landscape of New Mexico – to persuade me that Nicolay is deadly serious about his craft, enough for me to genuinely look forward to seeing what he writes next. (Psst – I hope it’s a novel. Nicolay’s story arcs lend themselves naturally and instinctively to the longer length, and I seriously think that this writer could pull off that rare thing: a full-length horror story that sticks the distance without dissolving into cliche.)

The one major downside – and excuse me for sounding like a broken record here – is Nicolay’s seeming inability to write about women. I wouldn’t mind so much if he simply admitted to himself that this was a weakness and stuck to writing bro-on-bro standoffs instead. (It’s no coincidence that in the most all-round effective story in this volume, the superb ‘Phragmites’, Nicolay is sensible enough to leave the women out of it.) Thinking about this issue, and judging by the all-round quality of the stories otherwise, I THINK what Nicolay is trying to do is offer some kind of commentary on the toxic nature of macho masculinity. You could say he succeeds – there’s certainly enough of it on show here. But to be a commentary, rather than simply a roll-call, we need more: more indication of intent on the part of the author, more subtext, more counterpoint. There is literally no counterpoint, and for me at least Ana Kai Tangata suffers for the lack of it. For the most part, I was able to set my grievances to one side – I was enjoying myself too much not to, and on the up side there ARE giant transdimensional man-eating woodlice on hand to dispose of some of these scumbags – but I would understand completely if other readers felt too pissed off by the general arseholeism of Nicolay’s characters to want to continue.

Would I recommend Ana Kai Tangata as a collection? Yes definitely, but with those caveats. And in the hope that Nicolay will work on these problem areas to produce an even better book next time out.

Thought for the day

“This campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics. The justice minister, Michael Gove, and the leader of the house, Chris Grayling – together with former London mayor Boris Johnson – have allied themselves to divisive anti-foreigner sentiment ramped up to a level unprecedented in our lifetime. Ted Heath expelled Enoch Powell from the Tory front ranks for it. Oswald Mosley was ejected from his party for it. Gove and Grayling remain in the cabinet.” (Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian.)

I don’t normally talk about politics on my blog, but recent events have made it impossible not to. Over the past weeks of the EU referendum campaign, Chris and I have become increasingly dispirited, increasingly despairing at a level of political discourse that set a pathetically low intellectual bar from the outset, but that has descended, as the referendum draws closer, into openly racist scaremongering and dangerous sophistry. To see this in the run-up to any election would be grim enough; to see it in the run-up to what may be the most important political decision our country will have to make in the past half-century is, to put no finer point on it, terrifying.

The murder of Jo Cox yesterday is a devastating personal tragedy for those closest to her. For our country at large, it is the most potently horrifying symbol of the pass we have reached as a nation. It would be wrong to go the easy route, to characterise Thomas Mair solely as a troubled loner who didn’t really know what he was doing. He may be all of those things – but the resentments and anger that were festering inside him did not come from nowhere. In a political culture that legitimises the stigmatisation of refugees, of minority ethnic groups, of Muslims, of people who stand in support of these groups and others, that sees it as being OK to talk about ‘these people’ and to put up Nazi propaganda-style posters as a ‘normal’ part of political campaigning, what else can we expect?

I don’t blame the British people. I blame those members of the political class who are shamelessly stoking up vague, mostly unexamined prejudice for their own political gain. In a time of immense and rapid social change, politicians should be helping citizens, through informed debate and truthful engagement, to come to a better understanding of their concerns. What some of them are doing instead is verging on the criminal.

Just one of the tricks of capitalism, to divide and rule. As Jo Cox herself suggested, many of the people being goaded by the Leave campaign have far, far more in common with those oppressed minorities than with the career bigots who are even now in the process of turning the political landscape of this country into something that I, as a British citizen, do not recognise and that frightens me more and more every day.

Yes, our country is being taken away from us – but not by Syrian refugees or Polish farm workers.

There is still time to turn back the tide. I know that most of you reading this know that anyway, and feel the same as I do, but I have to say the words.

Come on, Britain. We can do better than this. We ARE better than this. This is awful.

#weird2016: ‘The Devil is in the Coincidence’: two American horror stories

TL;DR: Buy these books. Read them now.

AHFOG.TremblayThe first indication that anything is wrong in the lives of the two sisters in Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts is when the older girl, Marjorie, begins telling scary stories. Meredith, known to everyone as Merry, is used to playing story-games with her beloved big sister, but she’s never heard anything like this before. Instead of adapting fairy tales in her usual manner, Marjorie tells Merry all about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. When Merry, horrified, asks her if the story is something she found on the internet, Marjorie insists the details of the disaster were lodged inside her all along:

‘I don’t know. I woke up yesterday and just sort of knew the story, like it was something that’s always been there in my head. Stories are like that sometimes, I think. Even real ones. And I know this one was a horrible, terrible, no-good story, but I – I can’t stop thinking about it, you know? I wonder what it was like to be there, what it was like to be Maria, to see and smell and hear and feel what she felt right that second before the wave got her. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well, but I just wanted to tell you, Merry. I wanted to share it with you. Okay?’

Later that same day, there is a disturbing scene at the dinner table when Marjorie and her mother Sarah start talking about an ‘appointment’ that Merry knows nothing about. The girls’ father, David, insists they say grace – something else that has never happened before. We learn that David has recently lost his job, that the whole family has been under stress as a result. But it soon becomes obvious that more sinister forces are at work here, something to do with Marjorie, and that the adults are increasingly in conflict over what to do about it. Sarah feels sure that her daughter is suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that the conventional methods – medical treatment and psychiatric counselling – are the best way forward. David, with time on his hands and resentment brewing, has come to believe that his daughter’s sickness is the devil’s work, that a demon is living inside her and that the only way to dislodge it is through God’s intercession. He begins consulting a priest, Father Wanderley, who offers the Barratts a way forward, an opportunity to remove the demon and rid themselves of their financial worries at the same time. Against her better judgement, Sarah agrees. As the atmosphere inside the house darkens, and the truth about what is going on becomes ever more confused, Marjorie herself seems desperate to communicate her predicament to the only person she still trusts – her sister Merry:

‘I’m not well, Merry. I don’t mean to frighten you, I’m sorry… You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are – there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say “okay”.’

Marjorie’s terrifying experiences are brilliantly conveyed at one remove. Because Merry is only a child, she finds it difficult to tell where fantasy begins and reality leaves off. Eight-year-old Merry barely understands how bad the situation really is – but her older self knows, and as Tremblay has skilfully interwoven the first-hand observations of child-Merry with the insights of Merry-grown-up, we as readers are better able to appreciate the ambiguity of what actually occurred. These narrative sections are intercut with two extended interjections from a horror blogger, detailing and analysing the TV series based around the events at the Barratt home. That Tremblay’s fictional horror fan carries the same name as a real blogger and is liberally based – with her full consent – around her online personality is a further breaking of the fourth wall in a novel that is continually inventive and surprising, playing with our expectations and then subverting them again. There is no doubt that Tremblay is fully in command of his genre materials. He is also a very good writer. A Head Full of Ghosts has everything one could wish for in a horror novel, keeping faith with the tenets of the genre whilst remaining fully aware of itself as a literary entity:

I wondered what [this Father Wanderley] looked like. Was he young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat? Then I focussed on more particular and peculiar details, like what if he had big knuckles on his hands, or what if one leg was shorter than the other. Could he touch the tip of his nose with his tongue like my friend Cara could? Did he like pickles on his cheeseburgers? Did his smile crinkle up the skin around his eyes? Would he yawn if he watched me yawn? What did his voice sound like that Dad would like him so much?

It is this intricate level of characterisation that is missing from so many generic horror novels, much to their detriment. And it is largely due to writing like this – vivid, imaginative, grounded as hell – that Tremblay’s novel remains genuinely frightening right the way to the end. We’re scared because we care, because Tremblay’s skill as a writer has allowed us to entirely suspend our disbelief. That he keeps us guessing about the truth even beyond the final page is the icing on the cake.

It is impossible to read this novel and not think of The Exorcist, but Tremblay utilises his references so cogently, so knowingly, that they are definitively a feature and not a bug. As Catriona Ward’s recent debut Rawblood makes use of classic gothic tropes to create a novel that is simultaneously traditional and thoroughly modern in its affect and scope, so A Head Full of Ghosts turns its spotlight upon the works, themes and imagery of the 1970s/80s horror boom to reveal a multilayered metafiction that is also wholly satisfying as story. Those readers who are unreasonably devoted to the current North American horror scene will no doubt enjoy checking off the personages Tremblay has chosen to name-check – Stephen Graham Jones and Ian Rogers turn up in unexpected places, as does a certain Dr Navidson, whilst Tremblay also nods to himself in the mirror in passing – but for those with healthier reading habits, these self-referential games will neither impede nor intrude upon the action. It is more important to note the subtler reference, through Tremblay’s protagonist Merry, to Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another story of two troubled sisters in which a certain Merricat Blackwood proves to be a similarly unreliable narrator.

This book is a keeper, one to own in hardback if you can. And the good newsDADR.Tremblay is that Tremblay’s new novel is hardly less impressive. Another moving portrait of family life, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock deals with the aftermath of the sudden and unexplained disappearance of fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson from a patch of local wilderness known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy was a good kid, popular with his friends and loved by his family. He was doing well at school, had no known problems with drugs or alcohol, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. The friends who were with him on the night he went missing initially have no explanation for what has happened, and it is down to Tommy’s mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate, both still in shock, to delve deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s recent private life. As pages from Tommy’s journal make increasingly disturbing reference to an older boy named Arnold, so Kate in particular becomes convinced that Tommy’s friends, Luis and Josh, must know far more about Tommy’s whereabouts than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth investigates what she believes may be a physical manifestation of Tommy’s ghost. When the truth of what happened that night finally comes out, it is more tragic and more horrifying than anyone involved in the search has hitherto suspected.

This is a sad and often harrowing story, eloquently told. As the boys’ fascination with and dependency on Arnold increases, I found myself more and more reminded of a recent and tragic case in Britain in which a gifted and well-loved teenager was groomed online and finally murdered by a psychopathic youth, now serving a life sentence for the crime. Whether Tremblay knew of or was inspired by this case is finally irrelevant. What is most striking here is his intricately chilling depiction of what is essentially a seduction of the innocent by the corrupt.

When he first met Arnold, Josh had thought the whole seer shtick was exactly that, and Josh had pretended otherwise because it was fun and it was what their summer had become… Now he wasn’t so sure that there wasn’t something off or unsettling about Arnold, the repetition and sameness of their meeting place and discussions and beer drinking felt purposeful, like they were being worked on or worn down.

That Tremblay is able to give an unshrinking depiction of the monstrousness of Arnold’s deeds without simply dismissing their broken and previously abused perpetrator as a monster himself is entirely to the novel’s advantage. Tremblay’s writing shines throughout, giving a depth of characterisation and sense of place that raises Disappearance at Devil’s Rock far above the ordinary tensions of the missing-child thriller:

Allison pulls into Elizabeth’s driveway, as far up as she can go, and parks next to Janice’s car. The headlights flood her backyard. Busy moths and gnats float in the electric light above the tall and sagging grass. She shuts the car off, the spotlight disappears, and the secret nocturnal life of the backyard retreats into darkness again.

I also appreciate the fact that – as with A Head Full of Ghosts – Tremblay leaves room for Disappearance At Devil’s Rock to still be a novel of supernatural horror, if that’s the book the reader wants to be reading, thus proving once again that having literary values doesn’t mean selling out to the literary mainstream. Just because there’s a lot of schlock horror out there does not mean that horror is, by its nature, schlock.

It’s always risky to make generalisations, but if British horror fiction can be characterised as the literature of the outcast seeking its kind, it is interesting to see how we might think about American horror fiction as its polar opposite: the literature of the normal under siege. A quintessentially British horror narrative will typically feature a solitary, sometimes persecuted protagonist, seeking refuge from the world in an out-of-the-way and often creepy place, usually with uncanny results – think of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, Alison Littlewood’s A Cold Season, Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood and almost anything by Joel Lane or Robert Aickman. British horror films adhere strongly to the same template – have a look at Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (based on a story by Robert Graves) or Philip Ridley’s Heartless for examples. What we find in American horror fiction, time and time again, is the story of an ordinary family living a contented life, whose equilibrium and wellbeing is suddenly thrown off kilter by an intrusion – often a supernatural intrusion – from outside. This model is particularly prevalent in American horror cinema – we think at once of now classic movies such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, the first season of the TV drama American Horror Story and yes, The Exorcist. Reams and reams of criticism have been written about American horror cinema as a reflection of social anxiety, of post-Vietnam angst and Cold War (now post-9/11) paranoia. Much of this is interesting – see Adam Simon’s 2002 documentary The American Nightmare as an example – but whilst Paul Tremblay’s two novels do fit very snugly into the American canon of ‘bad things happening to good people’ stories, I would argue that A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock give us much more to think about than the oversimplified ‘middle classes in peril’ narratives presented by other, inferior works of horror literature and film, mainly because Tremblay writes about families and in particular teenagers from a position of deep empathy. The boys in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are captured at a moment of traumatic change, not just in their outward circumstances but in their inner being. Flaunting the behaviour of adults, they are still nonetheless just children, and thus all the more vulnerable to adult duplicity:

On the video, Josh seems like an impostor, usually so at ease and charming around adults, he is barely audible, speaks carefully in small complete sentences, at times sounding dull-witted, and is asked to repeat an answer more than once. Luis was normally such a lovable wiseass, always willing to play that teen vs adult obfuscation game, you can ask but you won’t get anything out of me, but still make you smile and shake your head at the same time. In his interview, Luis is painfully polite and (unlike Josh) eloquent, expansive and detailed in his responses.

In both novels, we see the middle class family in crisis: gathering in the living room to watch a TV news bulletin, scanning the internet for clues, sending out for Chinese food because no one can summon the energy to cook, deferring instinctively to the police in all matters. Teenagers put in their headphones, blocking out stress and unwelcome instructions with the sound of music. Above all, each person migrates to their own room, staking out a defined piece of private territory as a means of survival. This is crisis behaviour we all recognise, practised by people who feel disempowered, in thrall to an often ineffectual authority, bludgeoned by information yet unable to extract anything of use or significance from it, reduced to being onlookers in their own lives. We do not scorn or laugh at these people, because we are these people. Tremblay makes it easy for us to feel their distress, because what he has in fact painted is a pretty convincing picture of our own worst nightmares. When something bad happens, what is there left for us to do but retreat online and wait?

Two new anthologies

I have two brand new stories forthcoming in two brand new anthologies, both published next month.

drowned worlds.strahanDROWNED WORLDS, edited by Jonathan Strahan for Solaris, is an anthology of stories on the theme of climate change. I am particularly pleased to be involved with this book as the subject is important to me. My own story. ‘The Common Tongue, The Present Tense, The Known’ is set in an inundated Cornwall and is a sequel of sorts to my 2009 story ‘Microcosmos’, first published in Interzone. In it, you will meet an adult Melodie, who wants answers to some important questions about her missing aunt. I loved writing this. I enjoyed revisiting Melodie, learning more about her past and about her world. The anthology features a superb line-up of stories and as I say, I’m proud to be a part of it. Here’s the full Table of Contents:

  • Elves of Antarctica, Paul McAuley
  • Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit – Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts, Ken Liu
  • Venice Drowned, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Brownsville Station, Christopher Rowe
  • Who Do You Love?, Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy, Charlie Jane Anders
  • The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known, Nina Allan
  • What is, Jeffrey Ford
  • Destroyed by the Waters, Rachel Swirsky
  • The New Venusians, Sean Williams
  • Inselberg, Nalo Hopkinson
  • Only Ten More Shopping Days Left Till Ragnarök, James Morrow
  • Last Gods, Sam J. Miller
  • Drowned, Lavie Tidhar
  • The Future is Blue, Catherynne M. Valente

Anthology number two is NOW WE ARE TEN, a collection of stories on the book_now_we_r_10_perfecttheme of ‘ten’ commissioned and brought together by Ian Whates in celebration of the tenth anniversary of NewCon Press. Ian originally founded NewCon in order to publish a charity anthology in aid of NovaCon. No one – least of all Ian – could have imagined how fast his initiative would take off, how far it would travel. NewCon is now one of the most respected and wide-ranging indie presses on the UK SF scene, and the stories in this anthology showcase the work of just some of the authors who have been associated with the press down the years. My own story, ‘Ten Days’, is a Silver Wind story. Yes, I got to revisit Martin and Dora, and a watch is involved. I love these characters dearly, and writing about them again has almost convinced me I should have a go at writing a novel about them someday. In the meantime, here’s the Table of Contents for Now We Are Ten:

1. Introduction by Ian Whates
2. The Final Path – Genevieve Cogman
3. Women’s Christmas – Ian McDonald
4. Pyramid – Nancy Kress
5. Liberty Bird – Jaine Fenn
6. Zanzara Island – Rachel Armstrong
7. Ten Sisters – Eric Brown
8. Licorice – Jack Skillingstead
9. The Time Travellers’ Ball – Rose Biggin
10. Dress Rehearsal – Adrian Tchaikovsky
11. The Tenth Man – Bryony Pearce
12. Rare As A Harpy’s Tear – Neil Williamson
13. How to Grow Silence from Seed – Tricia Sullivan
14. Utopia +10 – JA Christy
15. Ten Love Songs to Change the World – Peter F Hamilton 
16. Ten Days – Nina Allan
17. Front Row Seat to the End of the World –  EJ Swift   
        About the Authors  

 

#weird2016: Slade House by David Mitchell

slade house.mitchellThe events of this short novel begin in 1979, when Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita arrive at the eponymous Slade House in response to an invitation from its châtelaine, Lady Norah Grayer. Rita is there to play the piano at one of Lady Norah’s soirées. Nathan, a complicated, lonely boy, is shown the grounds by Norah’s son Jonah, who suggests they play a game of tag called Fox and Hounds. Slade House is hard to find – Nathan and Rita pass by the gate twice without seeing it – and the place seems frozen in time somehow, a faerie landscape too perfect to be true. In the manner of all decent fairy tales, this turns out to be the case. Norah and Jonah have an ulterior motive in inviting the Bishops into their domain. That neither of them get to leave would seem par for the course.

I’m nonplussed by Slade House, in pretty much the same way I was nonplussed by The Bone Clocks. You don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to make sense of this book, although how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you enjoyed – or would enjoy – the earlier novel. We’re back in the land of soul vampires, of the eternally warring clans of Anchorites and Horologists. As in The Bone Clocks, the fantasy tropes Mitchell employs are of the most predictable kind, the most basic of base metals. That Mitchell chooses to essentially repeat his basic plot – an Engifted individual arrives at the house, finds their most earnest desires fulfilled, and then gets their soul sucked through a straw (kind of literally, actually) by devious semi-immortal twins – through the first four of these five interlinked short stories could be read as either daring or desperate, depending on your point of view. Oh, and then Marinus turns up. Whether this pleases you or pisses you off will, once again, be down to how deeply you’re in love with David Mitchell’s concept of the mega-novel and the characters that recur within its endlessly expanding galleries and corridors.

It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Would we even be talking about this book if it weren’t by David Mitchell? In terms of its invention and originality it is fairly weak beer. Mitchell has to employ vast tonnages of exposition to make sense of everything, and had this been the first manuscript Mitchell ever turned in I don’t think he’d have got all that far with it. But Mitchell is a part of our literary landscape now, and – as is inevitably the case when an author becomes enshrined in this way – everything he writes is considered to be interesting at some level.

Which Slade House  – undoubtedly and against all greater logic – still is. What makes me draw back from giving this book an emphatic thumbs down is – as with The Bone Clocks – its glorious readability. There are slips and slides even here: Mitchell seems to have fallen into the habit of making everyone talk in Noughties Estuary, even when it’s not appropriate to the character in question (I don’t think the seriously posh Chloe Chetwynd would naturally talk about ‘legging it’, for example). Nathan Bishop is an engaging character and I enjoyed the chauvinistic cop Gordon Edmonds as I tend to enjoy all Mitchell’s bad guys. But elsewhere the characterisation tends towards the broad-brush – see the students in ‘Oink Oink’ in particular. It would be pedantic and boring of me to mention the ‘how can these narratives be possible when the narrator ends up dead???’ thing, though not mentioning it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. But Mitchell’s command of the English language is so effortless, so welcoming. Mitchell is a natural storyteller – you can’t help but follow where he wants to take you.

As a writer I have always felt a great affinity with Mitchell’s shopworn, 1970s-housing-estate Britain – I am deeply attached to Black Swan Green in particular – and there’s plenty of that on display here.  I have serious criticisms of this book. It is difficult to understand how Mitchell’s cartoonish use of fantasy archetypes might be taken seriously – I think I’d be more sympathetic to the enterprise if the whole thing were a send-up, but I don’t think it is. There’s too much (cough) soul-searching for that, too much clunky tying-in of this story’s somewhat black-and-white morality with realworld politics. It’s all a bit of a junkyard. Some nice stuff here but what to make of it?

And yet (as with The Bone Clocks) I can’t help but admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slade House. How do you explain that, except by saying that by worming his way so deeply and so fatally into our subconscious, Mitchell is – like his Anchorites – still capable of genuine magic. Not sure whether to recommend this book or not. But I guess if you’re a Mitchell fan you’ll own a copy already.

#weird2016: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

furnace.llSomewhere in the real world, the merchant bolts the second choice to her flesh, using living metals that flicker as they vibrate between one dimension and the next. The pain lightning-strikes its way up her torso, and the roots of the metal object follow like rivers of mercury, burrowing into her brain. He is welding her to a darker universe. When he is finished, he says, her body will be a pipeline to hell. 

He’s not opening a gate, Wasp thinks as she grimaces and howls. He’s just widening the road. (‘Wasp and Snake’)

This short extract from ‘Wasp and Snake’ exemplifies everything that is both excellent and disappointing in Llewellyn’s second collection, all the ways in which it has proved – for this reader at least – inferior to her first. ‘Wasp and Snake’ opens brilliantly. A woman strikes a devil’s bargain with some kind of hellish engineer of body and soul – shades of Clive Barker’s Cenobites – and sallies forth on an equally devilish mercenary mission: to assassinate a named target and claim her reward. The language involved in telling this story is as gorgeously rich and decadent as anything we previously encountered in Llewellyn’s debut, Engines of Desire. The story, though, proves a bit of a let-down: the denouement too simple and too pat for its elaborate and compelling set-up. We find ourselves wishing it had been more complicated, that the characters had been given a broader stage to act upon. Our disappointment is especially acute given our suspicion that, had ‘Wasp and Snake’ belonged to the era of Engines of Desire, they would have been.

I unequivocally loved Engines of Desire. I admired Llewellyn’s considerable ability with language, her obvious love for the horror genre, her willingness to take risks in bending it to her will. I found ‘Horses’ to be one of the most genuinely upsetting pieces of short fiction I’d ever read, Her Deepness to be a profound reordering of Lovecraftian tropes into a feminist Mythos, stories like ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Omphalos’ brilliant in their perplexing ambiguities.

Llewellyn is a gift to horror, a writer of seriously exceptional abilities. As such, her second collection Furnace was one of my most-anticipated books of 2016. How sad I was to discover that, in spite of some glorious writing at the sentence level, Furnace is a collection defined above all by a quality of sameness, of reiteration, by stories that feel less driven by the unpredictable internal impulses of the writer and more produced in response to the external demands of a horror market hungry for a repetition of earlier success.

There comes a point in the career of every promising new horror writer when they begin to receive more anthology invites than they can possibly fulfil. The thrill of having editors ask you for work is undeniable, but the truth is you have to learn to say no, at least sometimes. If you do not say no, then you will see more personal projects placed on the back burner as you find yourself subject to a forever advancing accumulation of story deadlines, your subject matter and direction increasingly moulded by the arbitrary dictates of themed anthologies. Rather than pushing yourself to try new things, you’ll be desperately seeking out yet another variation on the Lovecraft story, the zombie story, the alien invasion story.

It is a treadmill I suspect few on the consuming end of such anthologies ever guess at. But it exists. Thus the collections that eventually appear formed from stories produced primarily for themed anthologies have the rag-bag feel of compilations rather than studio albums. If you’re a Spotify kind of person this might not matter to you. If you are someone who regularly buys CDs and listens to albums in track order, it matters a great deal.

The quality of the writing in Furnace is unerringly consistent and usually very high. And – don’t get me wrong – the collection does contain some standout stories. The action of ‘Cinereous’, for example, takes place in Paris in the year 1799, and tells the story of one Olympe Leon, a young woman who, through her assistance at the site of some brutal and bizarre experiments, hopes to secure her fame as a pioneer in the field of human biology. It’s a brilliant conceit, so disturbing one is forced to look away at certain points (surely the highest compliment for a horror writer) and one would never guess at its origins in an anthology of zombie stories. Similarly ‘Yours is the Right to Begin’ might be described as an ardent love poem to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whilst at the same time augmenting and even transcending its source material. Both ‘Allocthon’ and ‘Furnace’ showcase themes of corrupted, static, male-dominated societies and women’s discontent and horror at their position within them. ‘Allocthon’ in particular reads like a horrific car crash between Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The Ligottian claustrophobia of ‘Furnace’ highlights the tensions between mother and daughter, a theme enlarged upon in ‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’, although this latter is a less original story, too clear a reiteration perhaps of Llewellyn’s earlier story ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’. As a portrait of suburbia gone to the devil, ‘It Feels Better Biting Down’ is more surreal and more original.

But while I loved ‘Panopticon’ for the glimpse it afforded of Llewellyn’s Lovecraftian megalopolis Obsidia, I found ‘Lord of the Hunt’ and ‘In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982’ – Llewellyn’s language aside – to be pretty run of the mill Mythos variants. ‘Wasp and Snake’, as mentioned previously, is ended before it’s properly begun. whilst ‘The Unattainable’, although it does bring a feminist twist to the traditionally male-dominated cowboy story, is otherwise a fairly pointless piece of mild erotica. Least successful of all is ‘Stabilimentum’ – a tale of urban alienation that takes so little account of actual spider behaviour that it was never going to win many brownie points with me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories, and anyone coming to Livia Llewellyn – or indeed horror literature – for the first time will no doubt find plenty to entertain and freak them out. Speaking for myself though, I missed the longer, more obviously personal stories that so brilliantly characterised Llewellyn’s first collection, and while her writing is clearly in rude – in every sense of the word – health, I for one am hoping that her next outing will provide a deeper and more complex statement of her future intent.

#weird2016: the terrifying weirdness of Philip Ridley

reflecting skin.ridleyOver the weekend I finally managed to catch up with, via the recently reissued DVD of the film, Philip Ridley’s first feature The Reflecting Skin (1990).

On the face of it, this is a simple coming-of-age story. Our eight-year-old hero Seth is growing up in rural Idaho in the early 1950s. WW2 is still a recent memory. Seth’s parents, Luke and Ruth, cope with the absence of their elder son Cameron, who is with the US armed forces in the Pacific, largely by ignoring each other, scraping by on the proceeds from their one-pump gas station. When one of Seth’s young friends turns up murdered, the local sheriff seems determined to point the finger at Luke, who was once cautioned for ‘indecent behaviour’ with a seventeen-year-old youth. Seth has other ideas. A near-neighbour, Dolphin Blue, harbours fantasies of violence and keeps mementoes of her deceased husband Adam – dead from suicide – in a locked box. Having been told about vampires by his father, himself an avid reader of pulp magazines, Seth believes the seductive Dolphin to be the true face of evil at the heart of their tiny community. As the recently returned Cameron falls ever more deeply in love with Dolphin, Seth becomes increasingly desperate to warn his brother of the danger he faces.

In the naivete of its child protagonist and its unintended tragic consequences, we might draw strong comparisons with such movies as Losey and Pinter’s 1972 classic The Go-Between and Joe Wright’s more recent Atonement and we would be right to do so. In their portrayal of misplaced jealousy, burgeoning sexuality, terror and envy of the adult world and the febrile intensity of the juvenile imagination, these films form a natural trilogy almost. That they all take place under the heat of ‘that last summer’, a span of time that seems destined to forever change the lives and futures of those who pass through it, draws such comparisons still tighter.

Interestingly though, Ridley’s film stands alone here in taking place in ‘real time’ rather than through the clarifying lens of hindsight. We can only guess at how the adult Seth might be affected in future – not just by what has happened, but by his own particular part in it. This is a dark tale, richly informed by Dick Pope’s superb cinematography, Nick Bicat’s ravishing score (fun fact: Bicat also wrote the music for the 2002 TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’) and Ridley’s own inimitably concise and emotive screenwriting. The imagery on display here – Dolphin’s memory box, Cameron’s photos, the mummified foetus, the nuclear sunsets, the teddyboy ‘vamps’ in their black Cadillac – is of a high and potent order. The only word that seems to fit this film is ‘Ridleyesque’.

I first encountered the work of Philip Ridley when I saw, completely by chance, his 1995 feature The Passion of Darkly Noon on late-night TV. Always on the lookout for interesting and out-of-the-way horror cinema, I was blown away by it. I also could not understand why so few people seemed to have seen this film or even heard of it. The themes were serious and deep, the vision complex, the writing and acting superb. The fact that this unique film has still never had a UK DVD release is a source of abiding mystery to me.

Ridley clearly likes to take time over his work, and it was more than a decade after Darkly Noon before he returned to the screen with the brilliant Heartless. Ridley’s third movie presents an equally disturbing journey into the heart and mind of an isolated young protagonist, with a destination no less terrifying than the end-point of his first. Particular shout-outs here should go to Eddie Marsan – the price of the DVD (easily obtainable this time, thankfully) is worth it for his Weapons Man alone – and to Clemence Poesy, who you will no doubt remember for being brilliant in In Bruges.  Again, this film has been more or less overlooked by the horror community, yet for me, Ridley’s movies are as equally deserving of attention as Ben Wheatley’s. What’s going on?

Could it be that Ridley’s themes – his preoccupation with religious belief, faith, sin and self-destruction – are seen by some as contentious and unfashionable, maybe off-putting to viewers? If so, then that’s just Ridley doing his job! He does not simply recycle old tropes – vampires, demons, ghosts – to sanitized formulas as so many more commercial directors are wont to do. He takes the tropes apart, examines them for substance, shows us what might happen when dangerous ideas are followed through to their logical conclusion. If you’re seeking comparison, think Guillermo del Toro before he went Hollywood – the del Toro of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Philip Ridley is as good as that, perhaps better. He is a master of the weird, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see his next masterpiece.

Clarke discussions ongoing

“Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.” 

This from Jonathan McCalmont’s Thought Projections 2, which (scroll towards the bottom of the page) includes a substantial rumination on the current state of the critical hinterland of genre literature. A more robust and well articulated grasp of the situation would be hard to imagine, and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these matters to read McCalmont’s piece in its entirety.

Meanwhile,  critic and former Clarke juror Martin Petto has been gathering his own thoughts in a series of posts on the structure and administration of the award, the composition and reception of its shortlists, and how the Clarke functions as a barometer of British SF publishing. Parts 1 and 2 are already up and well worth your time.

EDIT: Add to the above this wonderful post by Gareth Beniston at Dancing on Glass. Almost gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it..?

#weird2016: Frozen

frozen mckoenI found a reference to this film quite by chance, while I was looking for something else – isn’t that what always happens on the internet? And no, I’m not talking about Elsa and Anna and ‘Let it Go’, nor the by-the-numbers 2010 trapped-on-a-ski-lift-with-wolves-beneath horror movie either. This is something quite different – and it’s exquisite. It is also, so far as I can tell, almost completely unknown.

Kath works in a fish factory in the town of Fleetwood, on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Following the unexplained disappearance of her sister Annie two years before, Kath falls into depression and attempts suicide.  She is referred to a counsellor, a local parish priest, who helps her begin to talk through her feelings of abandonment. Kath is not prepared to give up on her sister, however. She pays a visit to the police, demanding to see the video clip taken from a security camera that shows the last recorded sighting of Annie down by the docks. Kath watches the film obsessively, searching for any tiny detail that the police may have missed. When she retraces her sister’s last known movements in an attempt to draw closer to the truth, she experiences something extraordinary. What she sees convinces her that Annie – wherever she is – is trying to get a message to her. Desperate to be believed, she turns to Father Noyen, landing them both in a situation that neither has foreseen.

This is a slow-burn, quietly effective ghost story with an immaculately realised sense of place and a genuine frisson of terror at its heart. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly like this makes it seem all the more magical somehow, like being made party to a secret. Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth are outstanding in the lead roles, but everyone involved with this movie has done a marvellous job. The stark simplicity of the screenplay is a joy. The writer and director, Juliet McKoen, made this film in 2005 and so far as I can tell she’s made nothing else since. This seems a criminal shame to me and I sincerely hope we see more from her in the future. Fans of Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh, the English ghost story and especially The Loney should all seek out this gem as soon as possible. Watch out for the moment with the roller coaster. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – and that’s something you’ll never come close to getting from more commercial horror.

Superb little indie movie and most highly recommended.

The Last Hurrah?

clarke20I first became aware of the Arthur C. Clarke Award at the beginning of the 2000s, when I was starting to take a professional interest in what we like to call the field. Prior to that, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as the Clarke Award – I knew Margaret Atwood had won it, for example – but not of how it related to other awards and to critical discourse. I remember the announcement of the winner – Perdido Street Station – in 2001, largely because of the gathering interest around a certain up-and-coming young writer named China Mieville, but the first year I can recall taking an active interest in the award at the shortlist stage was 2003. Two of the novels on that shortlist – Christopher Priest’s The Separation (Chris and I didn’t meet in person until 2004 but I’d been an admirer of his writing for years) and M. John Harrison’s Light – were key works for me, novels from what I might loosely have termed ‘my’ science fiction. I was interested to see how the battle between them would play out. Also on that shortlist was The Scar, which I still consider to be Mieville’s finest novel to date. These were big hitters, big books. The Clarke was clearly an award to take note of and I was officially hooked.

One of the central reasons the Clarke became so interesting to me is that it is a juried award. Nothing involving human beings can ever be entirely objective, but the presence of a jury – a panel of persons selected for their ability to be impartial and for their knowledge of the field – does at least suggest a level of discipline, critical acumen and meaningful debate that should but rarely does pertain to fan awards. At the simplest level, only a vanishingly small number of fans – now so more than ever – can ever hope to come close to reading all the books – or even all the critically relevant books – in contention for an award, which means that very nearly everyone voting, and this includes you and me, will be voting from a position of partiality right from the start. Add to this the ease with which fan-voted awards can be gamed – the Sad and Rabid Puppies being merely the most recent perpetrators of such shenanigans – and you end up with something that is practically worthless in critical terms, and only rarely approaches a broad consensus of what ‘most’ fans ‘like’. Add to that the sheer tininess of some of the committed voting pools – the BSFA Award for example often has fewer than 150 people voting – and the picture looks even bleaker.

The critical discourse around fan awards also tends to be lacklustre. In 2015, for example, it centred almost entirely around the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaign, and not in a good way. Instead of focussing on the terrifyingly poor quality of many of the shortlisted works – which would at least have provided some amusement, not to mention more than sufficient reason to prompt those blanket No Award votes in and of itself – criticism rapidly polarised into mostly unexamined, gloves-off prejudice on one hand, self-righteous faux-indignation on the other. Such polemic quickly becomes repetitive and predictable and is ultimately meaningless. It is as morally easy to be outraged by the bigoted (and ludicrous) pronouncements of Vox Day as it is to despise the buffoonery (and bigotry) of Donald Trump. It is not so easy, apparently, for us to have a conversation about the greyer areas of SF politics: the ostracism of individuals for expressing contentious views, the log-rolling openly engaged in by writers you like and whose work you admire, the cliques and hierarchies that do exist, in publishing as well as fandom, the edging aside of rigorous critical discourse in favour of mutual back-scratching and social approbium.

As a juried award, the Clarke Award is not subject to such indignities. As a juried award for the ‘best science fiction novel’ of the given year, it should have critical value, not simply in selecting a single title but in generating conversation and debate among readers and critics: what constitutes science fiction, what are the issues currently at stake, what is ‘best’? A literature exists in symbiosis with its critical hinterland, and, it seemed to me when I began taking notice in 2003, the Clarke Award was well placed to form a kind of central axis around which British science fiction might revolve, a critical hub, if you like. Added to that, it was ours – named for a British writer and indisputably British in tone, even as it opened its borders to books from all nations. This is why I became interested in it, and why, sometimes against my better judgement, I remain interested in it still. I care much less about which book actually wins than the critical process by which the selection is arrived at. I like the talk.

The Clarke Award is thirty this year, and when I was invited to be on a panel at Eastercon to commemorate and discuss this anniversary, I was happy to accept. In the brief for the panel, we were encouraged to consider ‘the influence of the award, the story the list of previous winners has to tell about SF in the UK, and how the award’s place in the field has changed over time’. A lot to think about then, and in making my own mental preparations for the panel I began by asking myself, prior to examining the documentary evidence in any way, how I thought the Clarke had evolved over time, what kind of changes I thought I’d see reflected, were I to look at the figures.

The biggest change I thought I was going to see was an increasing representation of so-called literary SF – that is, science fiction written by writers normally considered to be part of the literary mainstream, or published by non-genre imprints – among the shortlists as we approached the present day. When Margaret Atwood first won the Clarke Award back in 1987, her publisher, Faber & Faber, weren’t at all keen to have The Handmaid’s Tale entered for the award in the first place. Atwood herself seemed conflicted about what SF actually was and whether or not she wrote it, and there was a more than minor backlash against Atwood’s win amongst critics, fans, and even some of the judges. Compare that with this year, when Margaret Atwood attends the awards ceremony for The Kitschies wearing a tentacle-themed hair ornament, when more mainstream writers than ever before are experimenting with science fictional tropes and ideas they wouldn’t have been seen dead near thirty years ago, when science fiction has burst out of the geek ghetto to become mainstream entertainment. Last year’s Clarke Award was won by Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an almost universally popular novel from a devoutly literary imprint (Picador) and that was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Such a seismic shift in attitudes would surely be backed up by statistics.

As regards the question of gender and ethnic diversity, I felt less sure. Memory alone was telling me that the number of shortlistees from minority and non-Anglophone backgrounds has been vanishingly few. As for gender parity, I had the feeling that in spite of much talk and bluster on the subject, things hadn’t changed all that much on the ground. I had the idea in my mind that in terms of more diverse representation, the Clarke was lagging far behind mainstream literary prizes such as the Booker and the Costa, which had, I felt, begun to be more inclusive from way back.

What I actually discovered when I looked at the statistics was that of the twenty-nine winners to date, just six (Margaret Atwood, George Turner, Marge Piercy, Amitav Ghosh, Jane Rogers and Emily St John Mandel) have been drawn from the literary mainstream. Perhaps even more surprising is the spread. I set out thinking the number of shortlisted books from mainstream imprints would have increased particularly during the past decade – the decade of popular genre-busting novels like Cloud Atlas, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Never Let Me Go, all of which were shortlisted for the Clarke. Whereas in fact the number of non-genre SF shortlistees has remained pretty consistent and pretty low, with no more than one or at the most two mainstream titles making it to the shortlist in any given year (a bias strikingly reaffirmed in this year’s selection, possibly the most disappointingly core genre shortlist of the decade so far and certainly since 2012). The two exceptions to this rule came in 2008 and 2013, when a fifty-fifty split between genre and mainstream imprints brought forth a predictable spate of discontented rumblings from the genre heartlands. (Just to be clear: of course Ian McDonald’s Brasyl was an egregious omission. Personally I think it’s egregious and downright weird that, as one of the most technically adroit and imaginatively fecund SF writers currently working, McDonald hasn’t so far won the Clarke. But that doesn’t mean that Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army voted best science fiction novel by a woman of its decade by readers of Torque Control – should be looked at askance as some kind of dangerous infiltrator just because it happens to be published by Faber & Faber.)

So while the boundaries are pushed just about far enough to satisfy the iconoclasts, the Clarke remains determinedly an award of the genre heartlands, often drawing again and again from the same smallish pool of well established writers (of all the writers ever shortlisted for the Clarke, 29 have placed twice or more). This could in its turn have some bearing on the issue of gender parity, which has remained decidedly skewed in favour of men. While 11 out of 29 winners have been women (12 if you count Pat Cadigan’s double), from a total of 181 possible shortlist places over the 29 years, just 51 have been occupied by women. In only 5 years (1993, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2015) was gender parity achieved on the shortlist, and I was particularly shocked by the number of years – 10 – in which only one woman was shortlisted.

There has never been a year when the number of women on the Clarke Award shortlist has exceeded the number of men.

Turning to the issue of ethnic diversity, the statistics are predictably embarrassing. Out of 181 shortlist places, just 7 have been filled by writers who are black, Asian, minority ethnic or from non-Anglophone backgrounds. This figure speaks for itself: the Clarke Award’s demographic continues to be mostly white and mostly male.

Following up on my theory that the Booker Prize would show greater diversity in terms of race and gender, I was neither wholly right nor completely wrong. In terms of ethnic spread, the Booker does a little better than the Clarke in that of the 171 shortlist places available between 1987 and 2015 (the same period as the Clarke Award’s existence, in other words) 33 were filled by black, Asian and other minority writers, more if you count multiple nominations for Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rohinton Mistry. It’s worth bearing in mind that as a fraction of the whole this is only about one fifth, and when it comes to gender parity the results are hardly inspiring. Out of 29 winners, just nine have been women (10 if you count Hilary Mantel’s two wins), and as with the Clarke, the spread of shortlistees displays a wide disparity. Of the 171 shortlist places, just sixty were filled by women. While gender parity on the Booker shortlist has been achieved six times (in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2009, 2012) and with women even exceeding the number of men on three subsequent occasions (2003, 2006 and 2013) this is counterbalanced by the eight years (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2011) in which only one woman appeared on the shortlist.

It would appear that the Booker Prize is almost equally conservative in terms of diversity as the Clarke. This doesn’t reflect well on either, but it does at least prove, in a backhanded way, that the Clarke isn’t as hidebound as it could have been.

This is not to level accusations of bias at the Clarke as an institution or at its jurors. The problems of systemic bias begin much further back, at the point of entry to the industry and even before that. The Clarke submissions list is the end point, the point at which we see the results of such bias at work, and of course the judges can only judge the books that are submitted – for a further example, see the recent controversy surrounding the all-white line-up for World Book Night. The problems experienced by women, people from working class backgrounds, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and other marginalised communities attempting to enter the literary field will come from above and from below and work in circular motion. For anyone still unsure of why this matters, I would advise them to begin by reading a recent piece by the translator and publisher Deborah Smith. Her insights into how diversity actively promotes literary excellence are astute, timely, and succinctly worded and I cannot recommend her article highly enough. For science fiction readers, writers, critics and Clarke jurors on the ground, I would suggest the main task currently is to make ourselves aware of the situation and to take notice of what writers from disadvantaged communities are saying. For British science fiction, a more diverse landscape of literary works is pretty much essential for the evolution and continuing health and relevance of the genre. The Britain we inhabit now is not the Britain of the 1950s, nor even the Britain of the 1970s New Wave. We need to see the changes that are happening in reality reflected in the literature we produce and consume, which means hearing voices and opinions from all sections of our society. A retrospective SF is a fossilized genre is a dead literature. If I am excited by writers such as Helen Oyeyemi and Sunjeev Sahota and Xiaolu Guo within the literary mainstream, I desperately want to see their equivalents in British science fiction, and by extension on the Clarke Award shortlist.

Which then brings us on to the question: what is the Clarke Award for and who is it aimed at? On the face of it, the answer is simple: the rules of the Clarke as laid down by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Award’s founder, and the committee that originally set up the award stated that the ACCA should be awarded to ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’, the aim being to promote science fiction to a wider public, and to reward excellence within its remit. So far, so uncontroversial. But anyone who has had anything to do with the science fiction community will know that science fiction fans – not to mention writers and critics – thrive on controversy (some might call it nit-picking) and habitually find it more or less impossible to agree amongst themselves on what constitutes science fiction, let alone best.

From the moment the award was inducted, there was in-fighting between various sections of the community as to which novels and which writers should be voted on to the shortlist. In the run-up to our Eastercon panel, the critic Edward James shared with us a highly informative essay he wrote as a contribution to the volume Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization and the Academy (eds Gary Westfahl/George Slusser Greenwood Press 2002), ‘The Arthur C. Clarke Award and its Reception in Britain’, describing, amongst other things, his experiences as the Award’s first administrator:

“Should the Award go to a work which the judges recognise to be solidly within the science fiction tradition, which would no doubt be applauded by SF fans, but received blankly by an uninterested world? Or should the Award associate itself with a work that the outside world would actually recognise, to increase the standing of science fiction by hanging on the coat-tails of recognised Literature?”

James writes, thus posing the question that has divided juries and characterised the discussion around the award for the whole of its run. In 1987 the battle seems to have been between those rooting for Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and those insisting that Samuel R. Delany should take the award for Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a ‘proper’ science fiction work from an acknowledged master of the genre. “It was not an auspicious start to the Award,” James continues. “In retrospect, The Handmaid’s Tale was the wrong book.” This written in 2002, before Atwood wrote her Maddadam trilogy and long before she turned up in London wearing a tentacle on her head. Whilst admitting that The Handmaid’s Tale was ‘a very good book’, James positioned himself firmly in the Delany camp at the time and seems not to have substantially changed his opinion by the time he wrote his article fifteen years later.

A similar scandal rocked the Clarke just six years later in 1993, when the judges decided to exclude Karen Joy Fowler’s now classic Sarah Canary from the shortlist on the grounds that it was ‘not science fiction’, then went on to compound the controversy still further by eventually awarding the prize to Marge Piercy for Body of Glass, another work from a literary publisher that was deemed unworthy of the award by some sections of the SF community: Piercy was not British, and moreover she was already a successful mainstream writer who did not need the prize money or the publicity. The critic and former Clarke judge (part of the jury that awarded the prize to Atwood, in fact) John Clute threw himself into the fray, declaring that ‘the decision was so bad my ears must have deceived me’:

Body of Glass fatally gives off that gingerly feel one often detects when a mainstream author is manipulating SF devices and scenarios to illuminate her own concerns.”

Boo, hiss. Emotion, subjective viewpoint and personal odyssey in science fiction, whatever next?? I don’t think Clute would mind me having a bit of a dig here, most especially since he has recanted these vows more or less completely in the meantime, becoming as he is now a veritable mainstay of the inclusive camp. But the above quote is inestimably useful as an illustration of core science fiction ideology, which persists in this exact formulation to this day and to this hour. If Clute has moderated his approach, there are plenty who haven’t, and so the war rages on.

The most notable Clarke meltdown of the current decade must belong to 2012, remembered in some quarters as Priestgate. The most immediate and lasting effect of Priest’s polemic – something that was often overlooked in the welter of counter-rhetoric surrounding it – was that it attracted a huge amount of attention for the award. Indeed it could be argued that Christopher Priest’s essay ‘Hull 0: Scunthorpe 3’, bemoaning the quality of the 2012 shortlist in general and the alleged incompetence of the jury in particular was largely responsible for the wave of interest and popularity the Clarke began to enjoy in the mainstream press. The forthrightness of Priest’s pronouncement was treated as shocking in some quarters, and came in for considerable criticism as a result. Nonetheless, anyone reading his essay today will see that his analysis of the books remains astutely on point, and whilst no blame should be attached to individual judges – the idea of a word as strong as ‘blame’ being associated with something as ephemeral and subjective as the shortlist for a literary prize is faintly ridiculous in any case – the fact remains that the 2012 Clarke shortlist could be held up as one of the most potent examples of what can happen when the judging panel has no clear or united vision of what they are looking for – of what is ‘best’ in ‘science fiction’. The 2012 shortlist, more now even than then, looks like a classic botch job: a set of random compromises, the result inevitably arrived at when five individuals of differing tastes and mixed critical abilities fail to form a coherent vision and resort instead to horse-trading, and it was hardly an act of literary terrorism for Priest to point that out. I might add that if only all Clarke shortlists generated polemic this sophisticated, this concerned with literary values and the inherent potential of science fiction to be radical and progressive (as opposed to retrograde and derivative) our awareness of what the field is doing, not to mention the field itself, would be mightily the better for it.

In all fairness to the jury, it would not be difficult to mount a similar tale of woe for any year – there’s not a single literary award shortlist that doesn’t sport at least one glaring omission or freakish inclusion. The judges are only human, after all, and each will come to the table replete with their own prejudices, preconceptions, and hard-wired preferences. Take a look at this fascinating retrospective by Booker Prize jurors, and you’ll quickly see that the chances of any of them being persuaded out of their pre-formed opinions is questionable, to say the least. Unless judges are lucky enough to find themselves sitting on a jury of uncannily like minds, the shortlist for any prize, not to mention the winning entry, will continue to be something of a lottery, the hard-won result of in-fighting, barely suppressed professional rivalries, occasionally pure cussedness. Speaking for myself, the science fiction I admire most could be categorised as a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements. I am the kind of reader and writer who believes that the old kind of space fiction – intergalactic empires and people setting off in rockets to conquer the stars with no more than a tangential connection to lived or indeed scientific reality – is usually not worth bothering with in critical terms, that the core SF tropes are only interesting as literature if they are subverted to such an extent as to make something entirely different. I happen to believe that when placed next to the linguistic and metaphysical glory that is M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, something like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, though competently executed and entertaining on its own terms is revealed starkly for what it is: linguistically unspectacular, thematically redundant and completely lacking in literary irony.

When Edward James says in his paper that he considers Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to be one of the greatest works of science fiction so far written, I would agree with him heartily. When he insists that Delany’s work would be ‘largely impenetrable to outsiders’ – outsiders who have not been ‘initiated’ into the shorthand, language and conceptual frameworks of science fiction, I would beg to differ. For me, Delany is not just a great science fiction writer, he is a great writer full stop, and SIMPLGOS would be no more difficult for the general reader than any other work of modernist or postmodernist literature. It is – like Woolf or Beckett or Foster Wallace – simply a text that requires a modicum of concentration. Truly great science fiction – that is, science fiction that pays attention to itself in terms of literary values – needs no special pleading. Indeed I would go a lot further than this. I would suggest that if a work of science fiction cannot stand next to works drawn from the mainstream and hold its own in terms of literary values, we need to be asking ourselves if it is truly great.

I am aware that this view is contentious. I know there will be many who disagree with it violently, attesting that it is attitudes and tastes like mine that are destroying science fiction, stripping the field of what makes it unique and worthy of specialist discussion in the first place, and I respect that. I am even prepared to admit they may have a point. I want the old guard to go on fighting because debate is the lifeblood of culture and because it is vitally important that the critical conversation around the Clarke Award be revitalised and strengthened. For if there is a threat to the continuing success and popularity of the Clarke Award, it seems to me that the danger lies in critical apathy. In the four years since Priestgate, rigorous online discussion of the shortlists seems to have nosedived and atrophied, culminating in a situation where last year, for the first time in a long time, there was no comprehensive critical review of the Clarke Award shortlist at Strange Horizons and, because of inept programming and yet another shift in the timing of the award, no discussion of the shortlist at Eastercon either.

At least a part of the problem resides in the fact that there is no recognised online ‘hub’ for British SF. For a number of years (from 2009 when the submissions list first started to be released), the submissions list was announced via the BSFA/Vector blog, Torque Control, where lively, informed discussions of many critical and ideological aspects of SF took place under the dedicated, engaged stewardship of Niall Harrison. In 2009, the post announcing the Clarke submissions list generated 112 comments, mainly debating the eventual shortlist and offering guesses. The following year saw an almost equal number of comments and shortlist guesses, surely a sign that interest surrounding the award was in rude health.

With the departure of Niall Harrison to take up the post of editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, the Torque Control blog became a graveyard almost overnight. Since 2013, the submissions list has been put out to tender, firstly at SFX, which has always been a media rather than a literary publication, and this year at Medium, a major online publishing platform to be sure but one that has little to no direct connection with the British science fiction community. To date, the Clarke submissions post has generated precisely three comments, only one of which could be counted as discussion of the books or possible shortlist.

When you compare this lacklustre response with the proliferation of enthusiastic and knowledgeable blogs, shadow-panels and discussion forums associated with mainstream literary prizes such as the Man Booker International, the Baileys or the Booker itself it looks pretty pathetic, especially given that it always used to be the other way around.

One of the issues that was discussed on the Clarke anniversary panel was the absence – for two years in a row now – of the traditional ‘Not the Clarke Award’ discussion from the Eastercon programme. This lively and popular item in which panellists discuss the shortlisted books in the manner of a shadow award jury has always been a crowd-puller, and in the past the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist has always been timed to allow for it to take place. In 2015 and 2016 the date set for the announcement of the shortlist has taken no account of Eastercon. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the Eastercon membership represents anything approaching the whole of the British science fiction constituency, this decision to discount it entirely does appear to be yet another missed opportunity for informed critical appreciation of the Clarke Award, as well as showing a general lack of consideration for the fanbase. Even if it does not represent the whole of the constituency, Eastercon probably does qualify as the largest gathering of BSFA members in one place during any given year. With the BSFA as one of the three organisations at the constitutional heart of the Clarke Award this surely has to count for something. Such a slap in the face for fandom might be easier to tolerate were there a genuine reason for the change. With the lack of transparency around this question currently in force, these decisions – like the earlier decision to take the submissions announcement away from Torque Control – appear completely random and pointless, not to say actively deleterious.

Another issue raised by the panel was the question of a longlist. There can be absolutely no doubt that the decision taken in 2001 by the organisers of the Booker Prize to start publishing a longlist has been of immense value in extending and intensifying the discussion around both the prize itself and literary fiction in general. The reasons for this – more books to discuss over a longer time period – should be obvious to anyone. To my mind at least it would seem equally obvious that the idea of introducing a longlist to the Clarke Award calendar is pretty much a no-brainer. In the brief discussion on Twitter (March 27th) that followed this year’s Eastercon panel, the award’s director Tom Hunter had this to say on the subject of introducing a longlist stage to the award:

I prefer our full submissions list to a longlist. If we had more time/resource I would personally prefer to do more of something else than just more lists. For me a longlist doesn’t really create anything new, just an interim list, and it’s a big extra task to create for little return.

When asked by SF critic, blogger and previous Clarke Award juror Martin Petto why we can’t have both – it having been made clear during the panel by the current chairman of the Clarke jury Andrew M. Butler that far from it being a ‘big extra task to create’, the judges are already in the habit of drawing up their own unofficial longlist for the purposes of discussion in any case – Hunter responded:

But it’s not a longlist, it’s a discussion list. Longlist implies these are best not the ones we’re still talking about.

Quite apart from the problem presented by Hunter’s apparent underestimation of a longlist’s potential in terms of the discussion and promotion of a wider pool of books and writers, it would seem logical to argue that ‘these are [the books] we’re still talking about’ precisely because these are the ones we think are ‘best’ (by whatever definition arrived at by individual jurors) at that stage. Why else would be jury be discussing them? Hunter’s argument, such that it is, seems like something of a double negative.

On the demise of Torque Control as a forum for discussion, Tom Hunter had this to add (March 29th):

[The BSFA site] is a hub I’d say, but no matter how many there are people always seem to want more. Was Torque Control ever really main BSFA product? More good initiative by a member [Niall Harrison] now doing great stuff for Strange Horizons. It was a product formed around a person thus hard to replicate even if you wanted to. And thus BSFA shouldn’t try to replicate that old energy even if people miss Torque Control as a hub. It was what, eight years ago it was in its prime? Can’t help think things change.

Things change, indeed. And I would venture that it is exactly this kind of complacency (not to mention the inappropriate use of the word ‘product’) that makes them change for the worse. More proactive ways of harnessing greater critical involvement in the award might include instituting a discussion page at the Arthur C. Clarke Award website as a host platform for commissioned reviews and critical articles, roundtable debates of science fiction and its evolution as a literature, interviews with nominees and even – gasp – the initial announcement of the submissions list. At least then people would have a logical place to congregate. (Who knows – we might even decide to call it a hub…)

The current management of the Arthur C. Clarke Award appears to have forgotten that mere publicity is not the same as having a critical hinterland, that bland puff pieces and tick-box number-crunching are not the same as a discussion about literary values, that claiming any given shortlist as ‘great’, ‘exciting’ or even ‘diverse’ is shallow and pointless when that claim is not backed up with more rigorous discourse about the merits of the novels shortlisted and what exactly constitutes ‘great’ or ‘exciting’ or ‘diverse’. For the Arthur C. Clarke Award to survive as the beloved and respected and valuable institution it avowedly is, we need passionate critical engagement, we need personal involvement over a wide demographic. We need readers to feel excited by the idea of discovering new books, excited enough to want to talk about them afterwards. To argue about what is best and what is science fiction.

(NB: A significant portion of this essay was drafted prior to Eastercon. Any statistics quoted or referred to therefore do not include this year’s recently announced Clarke Award shortlist.)