Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Something Happened

Published today, my story 'Something Happened Here, But We're not Quite Sure What It Was' is now up at And is also available as an ebook in the UK and US on Kindle and all other platforms. It's a Jackaroo story, set in Joe's Corner, a little crossroads town in the middle of an alien necropolis that also features in my latest novel, Into Everywhere.

'City of the Dead', a kind of prequel to 'Something Happened', is also available as an ebook on Kindle in the UK and US.

The splendidly strange cover illustration is by Eleni Kalorkoti.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mouche Dans Les Œuvres

Out now, this lovely French translation on my BFI monograph on Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

I Get Post

Just received, this volume of Neil Clarke's picks for best science fiction stories of 2015, including 'Wild Honey', my little tale of feral bees and hallucinogenic nectar.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Clarke Award Shortlist -- Reviews

Arcadia, by Iain Pears

The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Way Down Dark, by JP Smythe

Currently Reading (13)

The trouble with writing genre fiction set in a utopia, so the old saw goes, is that genre fiction thrives on conflict, and there can be no real conflict in a perfect world designed to eliminate all of humanity's problems. Some utopian science fiction novels willingly eschew story for guided tours of the automated steam creche and the airship factory. Some, as in Iain Banks's Culture novels, are set at the edgelands and borders of their utopias, where perfection and rationality grind against the malfeasance of the unenlightened. And in others, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, an outsider or a disillusioned citizen questions whether or not it's an actual utopia after all.
But the real problem with writing about a utopia, of course, is devising one in the first place, which is the starting place for Arcadia, Iain Pears's intricately and elegantly tangled blend of utopian fiction and time-travel. The lynch-pin of its story, Henry Lytten, is an Oxford academic and sometime government agent in the 1960s, who still attends meetings of the Inklings long after CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein have departed, and has spent many years devising his own personal utopia, Anterworld, a kind of Narnia without the Christian underpinnings. The details of this fantasy world are used by one of his friends, Angela Meerson, to furnish a pocket universe, for Meerson, it soon turns out, is a renegade scientist who has devised a time-machine and used it to escape from the twenty-third century to 1936. Her version of Anterworld is supposed to be a temporary experiment, but gains substance when Lytten's resourceful cat sitter, 15-year-old Rosie, discovers the portal Meerson has stored in Lytten's basement. Lytten is the fussy author of Anterworld, and Meerson is its architect, but Rosie is its vital spark, its beating heart, who on her second visit leaves behind a doppelganger who becomes entangled in a question of succession on which the fate of Anterworld hangs. Meanwhile, in the future, a kind of Marching-Morons dystopia dominated by an elite cadre of scientists, Meerson's superior, Zoffany Oldmaster, draws up plans for an apocalyptic use of her invention that turns on the question of whether Anterworld exists in the past, future, or a parallel universe.

That's the bare bones of Arcadia's richly recomplicated and recursive narrative, which was published both as a conventional book and an app for Apple devices which includes extra material and allows the reader to trace the story via the timelines of key characters (this review is based, by the way, on the old-fashioned dead tree version). Pears's clear, unadorned style and expositional narrative steers the story through the intricate relationships between the three worlds and their various characters towards the climax of the end-times plot that underlies Anterworld's charming wainscot fantasy. Perhaps rather too much of the narrative is dominated by courtly intrigue and a romance between Rosie's doppelganger and a Robin Hood figure that cleverly echoes Shakespeare's As You Like It, and the imaginary worlds of the future and Anterworld are only lightly fleshed out, but the focus of the novel isn't so much on generic worldbuilding as on the stories that weave the three worlds together.
Above all else, this is a story about the power of Story: the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, the way in which stories appear to glide on their own melting, and the autonomy or otherwise of their characters and their relationship with imagination and free will. The story of Arcadia is, as Rosie points out to Lytten, got up from all kinds of prior stories, from Alice in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis's Narnia and 16th century pastorals (it takes its title from Philip Sydney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia), to science fictional dystopias, James Bondish derring do, John Le Carre's spy fiction, and much else. Its bubble universe is, in short, a kind of preserve of every kind of story, a refuge whose society is regulated by scholars -- storytellers -- who solve disputes by referring to manuscripts that tell the story of their world's past and future. For stories can also become sacred texts, fixed and changeless, whose translation into law can imprison society in utopian amber. Only new stories can set us free.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Films Watched January -- June 2016

The Room, Lenny Abrahamson (2015)
The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2016)
The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2015)
Wild Stories, Damian Szifron (2014)
Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014)
Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi (2012)
Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
Macbeth Justin Kurzel (2015)
Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier (2013)
The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam (1991)
Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson (1996)
The Ides of March, George Clooney (2011)
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir (1975)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (2000)
Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)
Kuroneko, Kaneto Shindo (1968)
Ran, Akira Kurosawa (1985)
Hail, Caesar, Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (2016)
High-Rise, Ben Wheatley (2016)
Non-Stop, Jaume Collet-Serra (2014)
Solaris, Steven Soderbergh (2002)
Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller (2015)
The Man Who Wasn't There, Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen (2001)
Batman v. Superman, Zack Snyder (2016)
Anomalisa, Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman (2015)
John Wick, Chad Stahelski, David Leitch (2014)
Jane Got A Gun, Gavin O'Connor (2016)
Lincoln, Stephen Spielberg (2012)
Watchmen, Zack Snyder (2009)
Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen (2003)
Jodorowsky's Dune, Frank Pavich (2013)
Ugetsu Monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)
Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols (2016)
Heat, Michael Mann (1995)
Black Sunday, Mario Bava (1960)
The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann (1992)
Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986)
First Snow, Mark Fergus (2006)
Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee (1989)
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Les Blank (1980)
Eureka, Nicholas Roeg (1983)
Cobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987)
Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard (2012)
Miracle Mile, Steve De Jarnatt (1988)
Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier (2015)
Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris (1978)
To The Wonder, Terence Malick (2012)
Red Eye, Wes Craven (2005)
Knight of Cups, Terence Malick (2016)
The Face of Another, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1966)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, James Cameron (1991)
The Big Heat, Fritz Lang (1953)
Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter (1976)
Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino (1994)
Snowpiercer, Bong Joon Ho (2013)
Jubal, Delmer Daves (1956)
Il Bidome, Frederico Fellini (1955)
My Dinner With Andre, Louis Malle (1981)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reading Matter January -- June 2016

Books I read in the first half of this year, in the order I finished them. Some for research; some for my Clarke Award coverage (the bulk of my genre reading so far this year, which is one reason for deciding to read all the books on the Clarke Award shortlist); most for pleasure.

The Bull From the Sea -- Mary Renault
Dirty Old London -- Lee Jackson
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene -- Roy Scranton
Terra Incognito -- Sara Wheeler
War and Peace -- Leo Tolstoy
Beastings -- Benjamin Myres
The Noise of Time -- Julian Barnes
The Charioteer -- Mary Renault
William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies -- John Carey
High Rise -- J.G. Ballard
The Medusa Chronicles -- Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
Medusa's Web -- Tim Powers
Mend the Living -- Maylis de Kerangel
This Census Taker -- China Mieville
Adventures in the Anthropocene -- Gaia Vince
Three Days to Never -- Tim Powers
The Lonely City -- Olivia Laing
Lab Girl -- Hope Jahren
Some Rain Must Fall -- Karl Ove Knaussgaard
Night Walking -- Matthew Beaumont
The Woman in the Dunes -- Kobe Abe
Zero K -- Don DeLillo
London Overground -- Iain Sinclair
A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers
Hunters in the Dark -- Lawrence Osborne
The Book of Phoenix -- Nnedi Okorafor
Europe At Midnight -- Dave Hutchinson
Way Down Dark -- James Smythe
The Buried Giant -- Kazuo Ishiguro
Arcadia -- Iain Pears
Zona -- Geoff Dyer

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In Oxford

(Click image to embiggen.)

I'll be taking part in this Oxford Science Festival debate tomorrow. Several extremely informed people, and someone who makes stuff up. Should be serious fun, so do come along if you're in the area and it tweaks your interest.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Currently Reading (12)

Like Dante's cosmology, Australia, the spaceship that's the venue of this, the first volume of James Smythe's Young Adult trilogy, is divided into three. At the apex is the notional heaven ruled by the Pale Women. In the middle are the Free People and their arboretum, a technologically enabled Garden of Eden. And below them are the restlessly violent Lows, who live just above the hell pit at the base where all that is unwanted, from trash to human bodies, falls and rots. It's a pocket world whose physical and moral attributes are interlaced, but as teenager Chan Aitch discovers, things are more complicated than they appear, and her hero's journey is no simple ascent.

Australia has been en route to an unclear destination for generations. Apart from fading stories of Earth, it is the only world its inhabitants know, stripped of resources and threatened by destruction when a new leader of the Lows leads a violent invasion of the upper levels. Chan, who mostly tells the tale, claims that she isn't special, but as with all heroes of dystopian YA fiction, her story insists otherwise. In the first scene of the book, she commits matricide on the express orders of her mother, Riadne, so that she will inherit the reputation that has helped to protect the Free People. Riadne's resourceful friend Agatha gives aid, and in interpolated passages explains the terrible circumstances of Chan's birth and the back story of her world. And Chan, armed with the ship's equivalent of a sword and cased in special armour, is possessed by a hard-won conviction that she should save as many as she can from the Lows while hewing to principles learned from the Pale Women's three testaments.

It's a kind of Arthurian search for righteousness filtered through the viewpoint of someone acclimated to brutality. Both the ship's decaying interior and the moral dilemmas Chan faces are forcefully conveyed, and Smythe doesn't flinch from showing the consequences of the savagery of the ship's inhabitants, although sidelong glimpses of horrors are more effective than more detailed -- and more prosaic and somewhat repetitive -- descriptions of Chan's hack and slash brawls. Although it's central to the story, Smythe's spaceship is a low-tech affair -- there's no explanation as to why or how it has gravity, for instance -- but its generic simplicity means that there's no estranging technological wizardry to distract from the urgency of the tale, or from the grimdark atrocities that double down on the bleakness and violence that characterise much contemporary YA dystopias. Along the way, Chan's reluctant heroism engages with the problem of goodness and the consequences of intervention, and she wins two major revelations about the nature and purpose of the ship. The second, familiar to dedicated readers of science fiction (but less so, perhaps, to the novel's target audience), could have rounded out a self-contained story, but instead aims Chan towards a new set of problems and presumably postpones her full enlightenment until completion of the trilogy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sit Rep

I've just fired the manuscript of Austral through the ether to my agent and editor, the second stage of what was just a notion (someone on the run in a greening Antarctica, getting into deeper trouble with every step) becoming a thing. (The first step was, of course, writing it down.)

At this stage I should fall over for a while, but there are other things to do. One of them is reviewing all the novels nominated for the 2016 Clarke Awards. So far I've read five and reviewed four -- the reviews can be found by scrolling down just a bit. After I've posted the last review, I'll write an overview post, asking what the six tell us about the state of British science fiction publishing, and lightly speculating on which of them might win.

Adam Roberts used to do this roundup on a regular basis, and did it far better than me, but after Nina Allan commented that no one seemed to be doing it this time around I thought I'd pick up the gauntlet. So far it's been a lot less like work than I thought it would be, although emitting a review roughly once a week is hardly pushing myself. A couple of decades ago I was reviewing six or seven novels for Interzone once every other month while writing my own books and holding down an actual job. Ah, but I was so much younger then; I'm older than that now.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Currently Reading (11)

'I still wasn't sure whether England was in Europe or not; I had the impression that the English would have quite liked to be in Europe so long as they were running it, but weren't particularly bothered otherwise.'
In the bad-tempered run-up to the vote on whether or not the United Kingdom should quit the European Union, this, the second novel in Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence, is especially topical. It isn't a direct sequel to its predecessor, Europe in Autumn, but does extend and deepen that novel's revelation of the existence of alternate territories underlying a near future Europe devastated by the Xian flu and shattered into hundreds of micro-states. But it begins elsewhere, in the isolated bubble world of the Campus, a wintery and impoverished pocket world where, in the aftermath of a revolution that violently deposed the Old Board, the new Professor of Intelligence, who goes by the name Rupert of Hentzau, begins to uncover a conspiracy involving the Campus's Science City. In a second narrative thread, a random stabbing in Camden entangles a British intelligence officer in the search for a county west of London imagined into being by the Whitton-Whytes, a family of landowners, and Hutchinson neatly tangles the two threads in a mission to infiltrate the Community, the quaint yet sinister English Ruritania that underlies the shattered map of Europe.

Wainscot societies, hidden in the margins of the world we know, are a commonplace in fantasy -- the most famous example is, of course, Harry Potter's wizarding world. While the Community is armed not with magic but nuclear weapons, it is, like many wainscots, intent on secretly manipulating the real world, a powerful and hidden player in the realpolitik of fractured Europe. Like Alan Furst (is the title of his novel an homage to Furst's Europe In Midnight?), Hutchinson's subject is the growing shadow of war or disruption in the heart of Europe; like John Le Carre, he deploys considerable lore about tradecraft and procedure, and foregrounds the human stories at the heart of conspiracies; like Eric Ambler and John Buchan, he isolates the heroic impulse in seemingly ordinary men.

The novel's middle section, involving infiltration of the sewers under a micro-state created by kleptocrats in the middle of Dresden, doesn't quite escape the spy-novel cliches Hutchinson knowingly and nicely inverts or undercuts elsewhere, but the settings and complex intrigue in the Community and the post-revolutionary Campus, and Rupert's dazed perspective of our world when he escapes his own, are vividly imagined, and the narrative that leads Hutchinson's characters deeper and deeper into various rabbit holes is informed by a wry cynicism and no little irony, and requires close and careful reading. Vital information is withheld; like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, characters exhibit a kind of dogged bafflement as they try to understand events they only partially witness. In less certain hands this reticence and misdirection could have created muddle and confusion. But Hutchinson expertly carpenters his two narratives into a satisfying whole, spinning threads that may be picked up in future novels in the sequence, and via exploration of the Community's stifling utopia, interrogating and satirising the Matter of England and the nature of Englishness with a trenchant and mordant wit.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Currently Reading (10)

Riffing off Ekow Eshun's memoir, Black Gold of the Sun, Ellah Wakatama Allrey notes that 'African children of the diaspora have a unique affinity with superheroes. It is a sense of belonging elsewhere, a longing for a special power that will both set them apart from the society that they live in and ensure them admiration and acceptance.' Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix is a fierce inversion of that observation, the story of the birth and radicalisation of a self-styled supervillain framed by the story of the discovery of her autobiographical memoir in a distant post-apocalyptic future.

Although it acts as a prequel to Okorafor's award-winning novel Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix works as a standalone novel: the confession of Phoenix Akore, a speciMen genetically engineered by the shadowy organisation Big Eye and caged with other experimental speciMen in a tower in partially-flooded near-future Manhattan. A prodigy aged just three whose accelerated growth gives her the appearance of a forty-year-old woman, Phoenix has educated herself by absorbing knowledge in thousands of books, has a titanium-alloy skeleton, can stimulate the growth of plants, raise her body temperature to searing heat, and regenerate after self-immolation. After the apparent suicide of her boyfriend, Phoenix destroys the tower by encouraging the tree at its heart to grow to enormous size, regenerates from ashes and develops wings, and heads for Africa with a seed discovered amongst the roots of the giant tree. But the Africans she meets are as exploited as the speciMen, Big Eye operatives track her down, and she returns to America under her own terms, where she reunites with her boyfriend and a third survivor of the fall of her tower, and embarks on a campaign to destroy Big Eye.

There's an immense amount of collateral damage, as in all proper superhero stories, but there's no real opposition. Although another speciMen is a black version of Superman, he's Phoenix's mentor rather than her opponent, teaching her how to slip through space and time, and Big Eye proves to be a mostly impotent enemy. But the core of the novel is not the usual conflict between superheroes and shadowy organisations; it's Phoenix's education, and her anger at colonial exploitation of Africa and her peoples. There are explicit references to slave ships, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the immortal cell line of Henrietta Lacks, kleptocratic governments in former African colonies, and much more, and parts of the narrative can be, rightly, uncomfortable reading for those of us who've benefited, however tangentially, from various forms of exploitation.

The fast-moving narrative is crammed with ideas which aren't always given as much depth as they deserve, but as with Okorafor's equally crammed Lagoon, it gives off a glow of vital exuberance, Phoenix's Biblical wrath is tempered by passages both tender and reflective, and the story of its discovery in a desert cave which bookends it reframes it with profoundly dark irony. Despite the fierce, violent velocity of its narrative, this short novel lingers and continues to grow in the mind long after its telling.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

From Austral

We were ragged and sunburnt and lean. We lived on what we could forage and catch. We avoided other people, made long detours around villages and settlements. I swam several times in the sea, once in churning surf, once amongst greasy slicks of bull kelp, once amongst Adélie penguins that shot past me like torpedos, trailing long wakes of silvery bubbles. Mama swam too, but never for very long – the water was too cold for her. We saw fish eagles play fighting above a fjord, locking claws and plunging towards the water and breaking apart at the last minute, over and again, and on our traverse of the Forbidden Plateau we descended into a crevasse and clambered over blocks fallen from the ice bridges that curved overhead and found at its far end a solemn cathedral vault and a tumble of ice descending into depths we did not dare to investigate, everything lit by a glow as holy and blue as radioactivity.

The days and days of walking blur together, and it’s hard, now, to tell dreams from actual memories. I remember climbing to Mapple Valley’s high southern crest and seeing a panorama of parallel razorback ridges of black rock bare as the moon stretching away under the sky’s cloudless blue. I remember a circle of upright stones in a mossy chapel in the forest below the Forbidden Plateau, lit by a beam of sunlight slanting between the trees. The glass and concrete slab of some plutocrat’s back-country house cantilevered out from cliffs overlooking Wilhelminia Bay. The broken castle of an orphaned iceberg grounded on a rock shore, with freshets of sparkling meltwater cascading down its fluted sides and a thick band of green algae tinting its wave-washed base. But did we really see, in the pass between Starbuck and Stubb Fjords, an albino reindeer poised near the thin spire of an elfstone named The Endless Song of the Air? Did we glimpse a pyramid set on a remote bastion of bare rock in the ice and snow of the Bruce Plateau? I’ve looked long and hard, but I’ve never been able to find it on maps or in satellite images. And did we really seen people dancing naked in a circle around a huge bonfire in a forest glade near Tashtego Point? I can’t be certain that it wasn’t one of my dreams, back then, but whether it was real or imaginary the memory of it still wakes the pulse of their drums in my blood.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Currently Reading (9)

Best known for his ten-volume Shadow of the Apt fantasy series, Adrian Tchaikovsky deploys old-school tropes -- terraforming, uplifting intelligence, a decaying starship -- to good effect in his first science-fiction novel. Its narrative, spanning some seventy centuries, is split between a rising civilisation of a species of spider accidentally gifted with intelligence during a terraforming experiment botched by sabotage, and a deterioriating human society aboard a starship, Gilgamesh, that centuries after the terraforming experiment has fled a dying Earth in search of a new home.

Continuity in the human strand of the narrative is given by the viewpoints of the formidable architect of the terraforming project, whose consciousness has been uploaded into an AI orbiting the planet, and Gilgamesh's chief engineer and a historian with special knowledge of Earth's collapsed civilisation. The lives of the latter are lengthened by long episodes of hibernation when Gilgamesh embarks on a futile round trip to another star after a near-fatal encounter with the formidable AI and an expedition to the planet's surface and first contact with the spiders go horribly wrong.

As for the spiders, the story of the rise of their civilisation and their struggle to understand their relationship with their AI guardian is told through a series of vignettes, an episodic history whose backbone is provided by lineages which perpetuate the names, characters and skills of their founders. Three are female, led by Portia, who is determined to save her species by any means necessary; one is male, striving to assert the value of his sex in a matriarchal society.

Tchaikovsky skilfully orchestrates the evolution of his complicated history, but doesn't quite overcome the obvious problem of splitting the narrative between one civilisation that's dynamic and rising, and another that's failing and splintering. While the spiders' half of the story is packed with ingenious ideas and unexpected twists, the fate of the humans aboard the starship follows a more familiar path, and the final resolution is likewise a little cliched. But the whole, with its nice inversion of the usual narrative of exploration and conquest and its thoughtful, strongly wrought depictions of two civilisations alien to each other yet linked by a common history, and of their attempts to understand each other, is an exemplar of classic widescreen science fiction, and the kind of stories that the genre has made its own.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Elvis & Nixon

Back in 2001, I wrote a story, 'The Two Dicks', based on the photograph above -- the most requested photograph in the USA's National Archives -- in which bestselling author Philip K. Dick, instead of Elvis Presley, met with President Nixon in the Oval Office in December 1970. Elvis & Nixon delves into the story behind the photograph, when Elvis one night decided that he had an urgent mission to meet the President, and explain why he should become a Federal Agent at large and help to save the country from communist infiltration and a plague of drugs.

Director Liza Johnson and writers Joey and Hanala Sagal spin a goofy, sweetly eccentric comedy around the clash of cultures. Neither Michael Shannon, playing Elvis, and Kevin Spacey, as Nixon, especially look like the men they're playing, but they convince through sheer performative force. Nixon is a man bored by the minutiae of his office; Shannon's Elvis is trapped in his fame, able to use it but not to escape it, and possessed by a charming determination to complete his mission. He's helped by two friends and a couple of White House aides who at one point conspire in the kind of car park where Deep Throat spilled the beans on the Watergate break-in.

Elvis takes command of the encounter by sheer force of charisma, breaking all rules of protocol, casually saying, when Nixon points to a Moon rock, that 'Buzz sent me one too,' and the two men develop a mutual respect over M&Ms, Dr Pepper and dislike of the Beatles. It's the kind of encounter that probably can't happen now, where meetings between politicians and celebrities are more commonplace and choreographed by PR and media awareness. While the film somewhat deviates from the truth, it perfectly captures the high absurdity of this strange, unique moment.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Five A Day

I'm roughly two-thirds of the way through the new novel's third draft -- the draft which will go off to the editor before being redrafted -- and as usual at about this point the urge to zip through the rest and finish the damn thing starts to grip. The number of completed pages begins to rise above the number of pages that still need to be revised, the plot begins to knit itself up, the mind begins to turn to other stories.

But it won't do to spoil the sheep for a halfpenny of tar, as the shepherds used to say in the Cotswolds (people who are confused by the West Country accent, and don't know that in the summer tar kept in a tar pot like the one in the picture was smeared on sheep's noses to kill pestiferous flies, sometimes think that they meant ship). A good part of writing a novel is discipline. Maybe the major part. So that means sitting down at the desk at around nine in the morning every day (including weekends; including Bank Holidays, like today) and working through an average of five pages, transcribing into the electronic manuscript all the corrections made in red ink on the printed manuscript -- that is, after the previous day's work has been read through and tweaked and amended. Come to think of it, before starting to transcribe those corrections I spent two months making them, so I'm a good deal further on than two-thirds of the way through.

The novel is called Austral, and it's set on the Antarctic Peninsula, which curls north from the fist of the continent, extending beyond the Antarctic Circle. It's the warmest part of Antarctica, and the part that's warming the fastest because of climate change, an average of half a degree for every decade over the past half century. Austral is partly about the effects of global warming and partly about terraforming the Earth, it's partly about change and how we deal with change, but it's mostly the story of its narrator, also called Austral. About what happens when she makes a bad mistake while trying to escape the consequences of another, about the history of her family and how it's twined about the history of the peninsula, and why people think she's a monster. My birth, she says, right at the beginning, was a political act . . .

Friday, May 27, 2016

Currently Reading (8)

A ship crewed by a disparate crew of humans and aliens bags a prize job: tunneling a wormhole to the titular small, angry planet that's the gateway to the core of the galaxy and rich amounts of the unobtanium prized by interstellar civilisations. There's just one problem: the core is barricaded by an ongoing war between clans of a particularly bad-tempered alien species, and despite a brand-new treaty the clan which controls the gateway may not be entirely trustworthy.

So far, it's the stuff of a hundred standard space operas. But Becky Chambers is part of a new cohort of authors who are repurposing the tropes of science fiction and fantasy to explore diversity and identity, and ways of accommodating and accepting difference. Some of the tropes she deploys are a bit too hoary to be redeemed by any amount of irony, but she has a good line in snappy dialogue, the members of the starship crew are nicely drawn and pleasingly variegated, and there's deep back history to her universe and a rich variety of aliens and alien worlds.

Don't expect a conventional plot: the problem of the angry planet and its horde of angry aliens is hectically and quickly dispatched towards the end of the novel. The point of the story is the getting there, and what the crew discover about themselves along the way. 'You're trying to learn how to be good,' one of them tells the latest recruit, a young woman from Mars with an Awful Secret, and one by one the various problems of the various crew members and their back stories are resolved through kindness, understanding and, yes, goodness. Most of the resolutions are friction-free, and one turns on a fantastic coincidence -- the cost, difficulty and sacrifice of caring for others isn't much emphasised here. But it's done with wit and care, and while some may find it a bit too saccharine, it's a refreshing difference from the adolescent attitudes and kick-ass heroism of rather too much contemporary science fiction. This turns out to be the first of a trilogy about these wayfarers. A little more grit next time, perhaps?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

There Are Doors (24)

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Beauty

Photo © Yutaka Kagaya

What do we mean, when we say that prose is 'beautiful'? When we say that 'beautiful prose' is one of the defining characteristics of literary fiction?

Actually, I dunno. It isn't just that 'beautiful' is dependent on cultural context, or that's it's one of those words devalued by overuse, most often by estate agents. See also 'stunning', 'spacious', 'superb', so on. It's also a descriptor that's both too precise and too inadequate for the kind of prose that rises above the mundane.

We know what bad prose is, because it's mostly, as Toby Litt points out, boring. And we more or less know what genre default prose is, too. (In science fiction, the default used to be Isaac Asimov; now it's Internet Snark.) But what kind of prose is better than default? What kind of prose is, if not beautiful, then truly great?

It isn't the kind of transparent prose that some insist is the sine qua non. The kind of prose that doesn't get in the way of the reader's experience. The kind of prose that doesn't snag her attention. The kind of so-called transparent or windowpane prose that George Orwell didn't actually write about in that essay which wasn't, in any case, about the literary use of language. In any case, how can prose pretend that it doesn't get in the way of the story when it is part of that story?

Great prose is much more than not being bad, or simply utilitarian, or merely competent. It's more than being lyrical, or poetic, or moving, although it can be all of those things. It can be precise and thrilling. It can lure you into its mazes and won't let you go. It can be witty and profound, can work on several registers at once, but it can also be stupidly banal when only stupid banality will do. It's the distinctive voice of the author, or the character, or the voices of both twined in dialogue. Most of all, maybe, as Toby Litt points out, it takes risks. It's a high-wire act. It isn't afraid of failure. It doesn't aim to please. It isn't fan-friendly. It doesn't want to be likeable or relevant. It'll be your friend and bake you a cake and take out the garbage, and it'll seduce your partner and steal your children. It laughs in the face of the grammar police and the impotent artillery of amazon reviews. It hides in your stairway and hangs in your curtain and sleeps in your hat. You know what I mean.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Currently Reading (7)

Triangulate Kafka, Camus, and the early novels of J.G. Ballard, and you'll find Kōbō Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, his first and also his best known novel, in part because of Hiroshi Teshigahara's wonderful film adaptation (Abe collaborated with Teshigahara on that and three other films, Pitfall, The Face of Another and Man Without a Map). Illustrated with line drawings by Machi Yamada, Abe's wife, its allegorical narrative is as simple, and as morally complex, as a fairy tale. Amateur entomologist Jumpei Niki visits remote dunes in search of rare beetles, becomes caught up in the scheme of a village to save itself from the advancing sand, and is trapped at the bottom of a pit with a young widow who is stronger and more capable than she at first seems. Niki's predicament and his attempts to escape, the parched heat of his claustrophobic prison and the sand which frustrates his plans and permeates everything are vividly evoked; his relationship with the woman, who is stronger and more capable than she first seems, evolves into an uneasy forced marriage. Like all great stories of survival, Abe's bleak fable strips its characters to their fundamental selves, and its bizarre situation and dark, absurdist humour frame serious questions about human relationships, sacrifice, and the nature of our lives.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What Is The Clarke Award For?

It seems quite simple. It is, according to its simple self-description, an award for ‘the best science fiction novel published in Britain in the given year’. A measure and celebration of achievement in science-fiction writing that isn't limited to novels published within the science-fiction genre. But what is meant by 'best'? and what is meant by 'science fiction'?

When I was a judge for the Clarke Awards, back in 2003, defining 'science fiction' turned out to be mostly a practical matter. We were presented with around fifty novels submitted by publishers, and as far as we were concerned, any novel that had been submitted should be considered, whether or not it had been published as science fiction. So we read everything we'd been sent, agreed that one or two were so obviously fantasy novels that they could be excluded, and then got down to the business of deciding which were the best.

And that, of course, is where the trouble starts. What do we mean be 'best'? What defines an exceptional science-fiction novel?

It's one of the topics that Nina Allan discusses in a long and interesting essay about the merits and relevance of the Clarke Award. Is the award still worthwhile? Does it stimulate critical discourse? Does it reflect the increasing diversity of the genre? Is it being given to the right kind of novels? What are the right kind of novels?

It's that last question I'd like to discuss here. Allan believes that what she calls 'core SF tropes' are only of interest if they are somehow subverted, and that 'if a work of science fiction cannot [her italics] 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.' In other words, a good science fiction novel should not be measured in terms of whatever it is that defines the science-fiction genre, but by the standards of literary fiction.

What are those standards? Most agree that literary fiction is in part defined by fine or beautiful prose, that it gives preference to theme over plot, and explores the psychology of the individual in particular and the human condition in general. It's concerned with analysing reality, while other kinds of fiction (genre fiction, commercial fiction, paraliterary fiction) are concerned with escaping reality. Some might also say, not entirely inaccurately, that literary writers are expected to write a different novel every time, while genre writers are expected to write the same novel every time.

Science fiction, perhaps the most protean of genre fictions, is somewhat harder to define. We know it when we see it, but it includes a vast variety of different kinds of fiction; its borders are vague; it overlaps other genres, including literary fiction. But in all of those different kinds of science-fiction works, there's perhaps one unifying factor: rather than exploring reality, science fiction is interested in exploring the limits of reality. Rather than analysing and universalising individual human experience, it's interested in analysing the reality of the universe and measuring it against human values. It's about change and difference, and the consequences of change and difference.

In short, the values of science fiction are not identical to those of literary fiction (or any other genre), for otherwise we wouldn't need to distinguish it from other varieties of fiction. Sure, good writing and fine characterisation should be celebrated, and bad writing and flat characterisation shouldn't be excused because of other qualities. To paraphrase Samuel R. Delany, fleas are fleas, no matter where or how you catch them. A badly written science-fiction novel is badly written even its ideas are novel and excitingly executed. Even so, and this is where I have a problem with Allan's argument, there are good reasons why great works of science fiction, works worthy of the Clarke Award, shouldn't be judged by the same standards as literary fiction.

Allan anticipates this, saying that she is aware that her view is contentious, and that some would '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.' I wouldn't go that far, but I do think that claiming that the standards of literary fiction are a universal yardstick is reminiscent of the kind of snobbery that asserts that literary fiction is the good stuff, created out of noble artistic aims, and all other kinds of fiction are bad, written for baseless commercial motives. It's also an instance of a kind of cultural cringe peculiar to the science-fiction field. Judges of crime, horror, fantasy and romance novels give awards to works that epitomise the best of their genre, not to those which best approximate 'literary values.' Only in science fiction are we so uncertain of what the values of the genre are, and whether they are worthwhile, that we seek to outsource them.

One of the reasons that literary fiction champions beautiful prose is that it seeks to make the familiar fresh and new, and that's hard to do in what's somewhat disparagingly called workmanlike prose. Science fiction, on the other hand, seeks to make the unfamilar familiar, and that can sometimes be hard to do if you adhere to what Martin Amis has called the war against cliche. Instead, science fiction has developed a huge common toolkit that enables writers to anatomise the unfamiliar and make it vivid to the mind's eye, to merge human stories with things slant to ordinary human experience or processes vaster and more ancient than anything in human history. And it turns out, here in the twenty-first century, in which our common reality is fractured by the consequences, good and bad, of scientific and technological advances, that the science-fiction toolkit is becoming ever more useful in grappling with weirdness of the happening world.

This is one reason why writers of literary fiction are increasing producing novels that overlap with the concerns of the science-fiction genre; why, from its inception, the Clarke Award has often included literary novels on its shortlist, or awarded prizes to them. This infusion is welcome, maybe even vitally necessary. But those novels should be judged by the same measure as novels written in the so-called 'core' of the genre, not by standards outwith it. They should be judged by how well they work as science-fiction novels, within the generously wide definitions of science fiction. From Allan's preference for 'a mixture of literary postmodernism, subjective hyperrealism, advanced and/or experimental structure bound together with speculative elements' to new varieties of the old kinds of science fiction, they should engage the heart and the mind, and deliver something fresh and startling and fully rounded. And we should be alert to the possibility that something fresh and startling can as easily come from inside the field as outside it, just as literary excursions in science fiction can sometimes be as trite and unoriginal as anything written inside the field that doesn't examine its assumptions and tropes.

I'm aware that's both vague and hopelessly idealistic. As Allan points out, awards decided by a jury or panel can be weakened by a variety of all-too-human failings, from compromise and favouritism, to prejudice and stubbornness. The short list of any award usually contains at least one oddity, and omits at least one title which, according to almost everyone else, should have been included. That's why the critical discussion that Allan rightly champions is so important, even though we should remember that critics are as prone to the same all-too-human-failings are the judges. But in the end, 'best' is not a value that can be defined by measurement against some external standard. As when I was a judge, as is hopefully the case this year, it's recognisable only by comparison with its peers.
Older Posts