Thursday, 1 June 2017

Clarke thoughts


    The discussion around my post (see below) on the Shadow Clarke site seems to have come to an end. As it developed I was disappointed – not because people disagreed and challenged my ideas – but because it was the usual suspects contributing. I hoped that the final paragraph would be an invitation and I hoped too that more women and people of colour might contribute. Having reread it all carefully I’m a bit less disconcerted and I’m especially grateful to Niall Harrison for responding so eloquently and with great creativity. Thanks to everybody for taking it seriously and engaging. I think there are some really good suggestions.

   I’m writing my response here simply because I have so much to do at the moment – not waving but drowning - and can’t afford to get caught up in the discussion any further for now. Sorry, I realise that may be a little counterproductive and unfair! It's a pretty gentle pushback anyway.

  Anyone coming to this anew should definitely read the comments first!

   So, maybe there are no easy ways out of all the contradictions that are discussed. Maybe we have to trust the process and its inherent subjectivity – it’s a book prize after all! Yet we don’t trust it, or like it, do we? We hate discrimination and bias and we hate that the formulaic gets chosen over the disorientating again and again. I find it very hard to believe that anything is going to change this basic state of affairs anytime soon and so I’m trying to draw conclusions even if they are somewhat idealistic and speculative. A ‘minimum diversity threshold’ (much better than ‘quota’ – thanks Jonathan!) would certainly not diminish the prize for me, it would make me more proud of defending it and committing to it in the same way that I used to prioritise the Orange/Bailey’s prize in my reading calendar. I really don’t get the idea that it would devalue the prize for women and BAME authors – it would be about acknowledging the very real fact of oppression and the systematic damage it does and saying – ‘we are not prepared to put up with this any longer’. As for the puppies – you don’t make anything better by worrying what the right are going to say. You do what you think is for the best and fight for it. I suspect the ‘popular mind’ – whatever it might be - is not very interested in the Clarke award or diversity anyway. Know your audience and know the audience you want to attract.

As a rough idea of award and genre interest I looked for followers on Twitter.

  • Clarke Award – 7074
  • BSFA – 4925
  • Hugo Awards - 14.3K
  • Strange Horizons – 20.7K
  • Media Diversified – 50.5K
  • Bailey’s Prize – 43.2K

The obvious conclusion to draw from those figures, without getting too polemical, is to look at the (amazing) popularity of Strange Horizons, which is at the forefront of celebrating speculative work by women and BAME authors. There is your potential Clarke audience – start with that 20K and push out from there. 
   With that said I'd be happy if any or all of Niall's suggestions were taken up. 

  I guess part of what I was trying to get at more generally is the inconstant and inconsistent nature of judging ‘quality’ in any prize like this and yearning for a different focus. My first interest in the Clarke was due to China Mieville and because of him I discovered Harrison, Priest, Roberts and many more. Then, once I started to look more closely at the genre community I discovered that here were a group of really clever people trying to write about fiction in a way that transcended the usual middlebrow stuff you find in the broadsheets – it was political, theoretical and often original. I found Punkadiddle, Infinity Plus and then Adam’s write-ups of the Clarke; I found blogs by Jonathan McCalmont, Abigail Nussbaum, Martin Petto, Dan Hartland and more. The Clarke was an interesting focal point and a way of expanding my range of reading but it’s quite different now. The speculative community has Strange Horizons and with it a range of critical thought from around the world. Personally, if I add to that Interzone, Nina Allan’s blog, Jonathan’s blog, Twitter recommendations and so on, the Clarke no longer seems half as important. One my favourite things this year was discovering Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor and that was down to From Couch to Moon.



   Thus, this year there were only a handful of books on the submissions list that I was unaware of. Moreover last year’s Clarke was a huge disappointment. It had the opportunity to showcase some truly remarkable novels and failed miserably. If I compare that with the richness of the last two Booker winners, by Marlon James and Paul Beatty – and I don’t think I would have read either without the shortlist focus - then it seemed obvious to reorientate a little. I decided to stop making the Clarke a priority…but of course the Shadow Clarke has meant that I engaged again. As I wrote in my post, I’m deeply grateful for the reviews, for the honest discussion and the way it has made me consider certain things anew, but not for the dull assertions that book A is more worthy or original than Book B. That’s why I’m going to keep thinking about my critical practice, and all the contradictions, to see if I can find a different way. Probably not, I’m far too opinionated and I like hyperbole far too much, but it’s worth a go.

This is the original post.

Clarke Thoughts
Some thoughts. If anyone has ever read my blog they will, I hope, see that most of the implicit criticism is aimed at myself, though obviously some of what follows touches on various discussions on the Shadow Clarke board.


Subjective taste and critical practice depend on so many factors, thus any reading will privilege certain aspects – close reading, theoretical base, genre knowledge, life experiences, political orientation. Once you remind yourself of that basic idea, it becomes almost impossible to defend the rhetoric and moralism that goes into a special pleading for this book or that. I like a bit of rhetoric and I like a bit of hyperbole – it’s fun. BUT my head would not have exploded if The Power had won this year now would it? It will be hard to stop but I probably should. Moreover, I CAN understand why Priest, Mieville, MacInnes, Kavenna or ANY novel didn’t make it on to the shortlist. The idea that there is some objective truth or taste out there that says differently now seems to me entirely bogus. Even amongst those with a depth and breadth of knowledge about the SF megatext there is no agreement or consensus about the books this year or any year.


This is difficult of course – if we can’t be passionate about the art that we love then what can we get passionate about. When great books don’t receive the acknowledgement and discussion they deserve it feels like an injustice, sometimes a personal affront. The problem with prizes is that they ask us to join together two, perhaps strangely irreconcilable, ways of splitting up literary discourse – taste, value, aesthetic judgement on one side set against criticism and theory on the other. This is probably an unavoidable contradiction – an understandable fudge that we prefer to ignore for the most part because we understand how literature, especially the novel, is so intertwined with humanism, with the middle classes and with a bourgeois outlook, but maybe it’s one we must acknowledge more and explore further. Moreover, even amongst the Shadow Jury and the writers that have regularly reviewed the shortlists there seems to me quite a divergence on their aesthetic preferences and on their theoretical baselines.


Once you get over the idea that the 6 best books – for YOU, or for the good of humanity, or for SF – will get chosen every year for the Clarke then it can be quite liberating. For me the obvious conclusion is that there should be a commitment to equality. The greatest insult to SF, art and humanity is not that Becky Chambers has been on two consecutive shortlists but that there were no women on the 2013 shortlist and only two last year. Add to that the outrageous fact that it is 20 years since a BAME author won. If the Clarke announced their commitment to a shortlist each year to include at least 3 women and 2 BAME authors – as a minimum – that would give publishers something to think about and writers all over the world a little encouragement. This kind of thinking has to be implicit in the judging process anyway, one would have thought, so why not make it explicit and send a clear message to bigots and conservatives everywhere. People might complain that ‘lesser’ books would thus be forced into contention. You’d have to laugh in their faces first and then explain why they were patently wrong.


There is also much said about originality, finding new voices and so on. Yes to all that, of course, but I hate the idea that a shortlist should never again have a novel by KSR, Priest, Mieville or, actually, a few other white men who have already received lots of praise. Why? Judge the text – whatever your criteria. For me that is about its relevance, its pleasure and play, originality, complexity, ambiguity and whether it is asking hard questions.


And BTW, I have no idea what a coherent shortlist is. Coherent how? And after reading the discussions I’m pretty sure no one will ever convince me! Actually, I want to blow raspberries at coherence. Damn, I really should stop with the rhetoric already!


Returning to personal taste……this year’s shortlist felt like a victory to me, especially after last year. But then lesser evilism IS the order of the day in these parts. Three very good books, an interesting one and two I haven’t read. Looking back through shortlists it’s generally hard to hope for anything more. Is that a bit depressing? To settle for less, to NOT reach for the moon? To accept that classic realist texts will win out over experimental or interrogative texts? To accept the formulaic over the disorientating? I’m actually not sure any more because I don’t know how you overcome all the contradictions. One of my favourite books last year was a realist text – Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – not just because it was beautifully written, exciting and passionate but because it confronted ideas about history, landscape, environment and sexuality.  Was it the same as having my unconscious disturbed and pulled apart by Han Kang’s two novels? No. But I’m happy to have both, to appreciate the work they do and to try to do some work in return.


Part of me is also wondering whether a critical community has a right to the high ground anyway – in taste, morals, experience, whatever – when they/we will, rightly, champion The Thing Itself but not push half as hard for a text like The Swan Book. [Octavia Cade – I know you have tried!]


The Shadow Clarke has been brilliant – some great, insightful reviews; amazing honesty even when it showed up inconsistencies and contradictions; passion, love and care. It is helping me to think about all kinds of ideas and investigate them further; it is helping me to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. It’s part of what has made want to try and read in a different way. What about you?


Sunday, 7 May 2017

Occupy Me - Tricia Sullivan

   I tried to write this with ambition. I didn't manage to get what I wanted but it was fun trying and it feels like a worthwhile beginning. I guess now that Occupy Me is on the Clarke shortlist it will come under more scrutiny. One of the great things about the Shadow Clarke is being able to appreciate the different styles of review as well as finding different things to value and new ways of seeing. Looking forward to all the thoughts and ideas in the next couple of months. And big thanks to Nina Allan for encouraging me to try.

“and the sound of the maple trees across the fence became sharper and full of the words that trees speak to the air” (Occupy Me 63)

Trees and a suitcase

   I hate all that plot description that comes with a review – read the blurb I say – but if you need some clues Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me has an angel, dinosaurs, a suitcase – think Pulp Fiction, think Wile E Coyote, think The Rockford Files (!) – plus a vet and a doctor. It has higher dimensions and quantum foam, trees of all kinds though especially trees of knowledge that might just be libraries spanning time and space AND it has bird gods, though actually our avian overlords may just be artistic scavengers or better, refuse ‘artistes’. It’s a novel that is helter-skelter and overabundant; in some ways it’s like (a very glorious) extended episode of Doctor Who…and I’m sure that some readers may even think, a little on the twee side. Though of course, they would be wrong. Those same readers may wonder if the parts add up to an organic whole. And to be fair I wonder myself but it really doesn’t matter. There are many, many riches here - this is a marvellous novel – full of love, kindness, empathy and extraordinary ambition - the only one that can give Central Station a run for its money in 2016’s SF best of. But that is to get ahead of myself.

A detour

   Somehow along the way I stopped reading theory and essays. I’m not sure how, I loved reading Winterson and Kundera, Eagleton and Jameson, Freud and Phillips. It’s so nourishing, trying to parse all that intelligence and creativity, watching how people make links and connections and test out ideas. It’s the joy of intellectualism and the pleasure of eclecticism. And actually it’s kind of a turn on trying to harness some of that suppleness and openness. So 2017 has marked a return to all this as I try to make sense of the terror and despair, fear, anxiety and melancholia that characterise a personal and political crisis. I suspect that many of you are trying to figure it all out too. For now at least I’ve recognised two main strands to my thinking that, although seemingly inconsistent, actually complement each other. First there is this from Sebald:

   “Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.”

This fits in with a conversation between China Mieville and Jordy Rosenburg and with Richard Seymour’s recent championing of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia.

And then there is this sentiment, here summed up by Sarah Waters in her Introduction to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus:

“the narrative ultimately celebrates liberation, the casting off of myth and mind-forg'd manacles, the discovery of voice, empathy, conscience, the making of a ‘new kind of music’…Carter’s writing, not just in this novel but throughout her work, is a celebration of words – a celebration of language and all the marvellous things that language can be made to do.”

Neither are about the emptiness of false hope or dogma but about doing work: of mourning and grieving, and of creating space for the imagination.

Intertextuallity

When I first read Occupy Me, over a month ago, I loved it and really heard, in its generous spirit, that new kind of music. My thoughts went straight to larger than life women like Nicola Barker’s Medve in Five Miles to Outer Hope and Angela Carter’s Fevvers; then they went sideways a little to the humour of Sue Townsend and Douglas Adams. I also thought of Bertha and Pearl in Katherine Mansfield's Bliss and of H D's Trilogy and her Tribute to Freud. All of this might seem bizarre to a SF reader – I’m not sure. But none of it felt forced - Sullivan actually mentions Doolittle in the text and, in a book of fantastically suggestive chapter titles, names a chapter after her: Occupy Me is undoubtedly an open and discursive text and dares to venture in all kinds of directions. Ali Smith discusses the "revelation that art itself is a broken thing if it’s anything, and that the act of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference" (Artful 23). Occupy Me is a text that demands your imaginative involvement. Some might wonder if I am pushing the boundaries of a reading too far? Actually I think not, getting lost in the dense intertextuality of H.D.'s Trilogy is a bit like getting lost in Pearl's higher dimensions and it's a text that is, similarly, about the search for knowledge and freedom, justice and new possibilities. It is deeply interested in testing boundaries and exploring ‘other realms’ (60) – sexual, imaginative, political and in exploring the connections between past, present and future.

   Finally, because I was trying to make a SF connection and find a way of orientating SF readers, I settled on Adam Roberts, the only other modern SF writer I know that can mix bathos and irreverence, high and low culture, comedy and political (and moral) seriousness with such dexterity and such command of tone. Moreover and more importantly, it felt like an overtly feminist text full of wonder and joy – something driven and original. A work that demands to be thought of in a tradition that celebrates women and the subversive potential of pleasure and play.  This led me, as usual, to try to discover a little more about the author. What I found filled me with admiration for Sullivan and full of anger at the ridiculous gender essentialism that, in part, led her to stop writing and go back to university to study physics. To be honest it scared me a little that the Suck Fairy would visit on the second reading and I wouldn’t like Occupy Me as much. I needn’t have worried.

Plot

Okay, if you haven’t read the book - here is what you need to know. At the beginning of the novel Dr Sorle – a man who has been literally split into two by the greed and violence of modern capitalism and colonialism - forces the dying Austen Stevens - the billionaire baddie, into a magic, multi-dimensional briefcase. Actually Stevens wants to go, he believes it is a gateway to eternal life. He has promised the doctor a huge amount of money to be saved. With the money Sorle plans to build an organisation called the Resistance – a network committed to small acts of kindness and empathy in the hope of changing history for the better. However the briefcase is also a part of Pearl, an angel - maybe: a part that Sorle has stolen so that he can blackmail her into showing herself to Stevens, to show him that miracles exist. What follows is a kind of thriller as Pearl tries to discover who or what she is, as Sorle tries to make the deal go ahead despite all manner of complications and as the larger forces of fossil capital try to thwart them both as they try to recoup the billions that Stevens embezzled. Along the way they meet the novel’s third main character Alison, an aging vet who likes a wee drink. I should say too that though the plot does carry you through it is hardly a plot driven novel. Indeed it is an incredibly illusive novel, trying to pin down its overall meaning is like trying to capture a willow the wisp. At one point Pearl wonders if she’ll need “a metaphysical bomb defusion kit” to open the briefcase: the reader may feel a similar desire as they try to decipher the text. SF readers should be happy with its discussions of entropy, chaos and the butterfly effect but the joy of it is in the writing, a numinous sentence by sentence beauty that I probably won’t be able to capture, and in the characters and in Pearl’s search for justice and selfhood.

You should know too that I’m always criticising books for their simplistic politics but the main bad guy in Occupy Me has made his money from oil, exploiting the resources and land of a developing country, fermenting war, skimming profits and finding ways to avoid paying tax. He and the forces he represents are all out bad: “evasive, cunning, self-righteous, blind.” (176) Pearl, like the reader, is sick of the simplicity of their cruelty: “this is how these guys operate. I’ll never be able to understand it. Here I am giving it away, my energy, my compassion, my strength. And dude wants to sell my own love back to me at a price. Everything’s a fucking commodity.” (179). Finally she sees in Stevens “the decay of age and the algorithms of selfhood that were starting to harden up into parody.” (180) and in that image its hard not to find an echo of this “disaster we are in” – the obviousness of it – its unique grotesque – history forgotten; hatred and stupidity transcendent. Is it too easy to hate a character like that? Of course it depends on the purpose of the novel. And this is a book with a bold palette.

Pleasure

Indeed Occupy Me is often a bit daft, not just bold but a little broad perhaps, a little flirty, but that is part of it's appeal - its lusty joie de vivre and egalitarianism. Pearl is larger than life; she has the sassy swagger, and the hint of vulnerability, of a Hollywood dame – Mae West perhaps. But then she is also one part Hulk, one part Clarence Odbody, one part Fevvers, one part sensuous lesbian role model:

“My body: not much shy of two metres tall, wide-hipped, umber in colour and packed with lively muscle and enough fat to last a long winter. My grey-streaked twists bounced around my shoulders when I moved. I was fond of myself already.” (31)

“I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw what Marquita saw: a fifty-something woman of indeterminate not-European ancestry, her denuded head wrapped in an orange cloth, her weighty breasts moving as slow pendula even in the tightest exercise bra. Shoulders like a linebacker. Traps so steep they looked like one of those road signs that warn trucks to use a low gear. Legs bowed and springy, feet large and high-arched. A nice thick layer of subcutaneous fat: no chance of this one passing as a ripped-up bodybuilder. She was packing power. Marquita looked at me with open adoration, but I always look at myself with surprise. There’s so much I haven’t figured out yet, and most of it is myself” (68)

She is endlessly open to life’s possibilities but also has a problem: ‘I don’t know which parts are me and which parts are my environment and which parts are … other beings.’ (62). And later she addresses her missing part: “You are mine but you’ve been made into something else. I am yours but you don’t know me anymore. How do we put ourselves back together? Where to begin?” (116) This is a text about ontology, identity and alienation just as much it is a book about higher dimensions and the desire for a better world. This is where, even in its playfulness, Sullivan’s text also nudges us toward those big questions that I alluded to earlier: “We begin by not being crushed to death and progress from there.” (146)

The dinosaur and the briefcase (again)

I think I could convince most discerning readers to try this book simply by quoting passages from it. Here is the Pterosaur:

“Over the railway bridge the ancient animal glided black and lunar, like a cracked piece of sky... The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of the quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again” (140-1)
But Sullivan’s dinosaurs are much more. They are a BIG metaphor for linking the past with the present; in thinking about irony, change and permanence. So too with the suitcase. Sullivan excels in using her genre tropes to expand and deepen the philosophical, scientific, speculative and moral parameters of the text. She can be completely literal in questioning SF tropes:

“This is for everyone who thinks ships are made of metal and petrochemicals and that they travel through space like sailboats travelled the high seas, propelled by mysterious engines that grant them impossible speed. That space sailors have space battles with space pirates and electrical cables and explosions and space bars with space booze.”

But then there is this:

“I feel the substance of the briefcase slither between the clacking grip of my claws. The substance of the briefcase itself is deep, and its intermolecular spaces are suspect: they look back at me like eyes. But these clever engineered depths are as nothing compared to the skirling void of that frank maw. Eater of dead men, mother of questions, it is before me and presents itself without sound, without smell, without sight. Without touch. My claws hold the edges of its containment, a mystery field that shows me my own blindness without mockery and without pity. I try to breathe. I need something to anchor me to the visceral but claws and breath and blood are not enough.” (166)

There is existential dread in that skirling void and in the pitiless need to see and understand ‘without mockery and without pity'. The text's celebration of language and imagination goes hand in hand with its sense of the battle between self and ego.

Love

There is a point when Pearl is questioning her need for deep connections and the way she falls for people. Her lover Marquita suggests ‘Love is attachment. That’s essential for the survival of the species. Women who love too much? What the fuck is that? The whole idea implies that love is a pathology. So now women are devalued because we can attach deeply.’ ‘I still wonder if I’m violating boundaries by letting myself reach into people like I do.’ ‘Maybe it’s not love at all,’ Marquita said. ‘Maybe you’re training your mirror neurons. Learning the species by empathy.’ Pearl notices people’s “humanity even when they couldn’t see it anymore themselves.” (98) The little episodes where she sees into the pain and contradictions of the humans she encounters are moments of delicate grace.

   This is a book about training your mirror neurons and to (re)turn to Katherine Mansfield, Occupy Me “is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.’" (quoted in Artful 84). It’s a text that transforms H. D.’s mystical feminism into feminist SF. To be known by Pearl, one imagines, would be a wonderful thing. To occupy is to fill, to keep busy and active, to hold. Occupy Me is a text that wants us to hold each other and fill each other up; it asks us to occupy the spaces that Stevens and his ilk don’t understand and cannot comprehend.

And I didn’t even get to Akele, kindness, environmental reclamation and of a luminous, deeply political dénouement: 

“Something wants to burst out of the ruination. Out of futility, out of crushed hope, out of that broken place where nothing can ever help. No superglue to repair this tear in the universe. Loss is just the way it is.” (263)

And it does

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A Clarke shortlist 2017

  
   So it's that time of year again, the Clarke shortlist is due tomorrow and I haven't as yet posted my shortlist - you know, the one that has NO chance of resembling the actual shortlist in any way! 
   In truth it’s taken me quite a while to get excited about this year’s Clarke – despite the brilliant Shadow Clarke project - and a while to ease myself away from dichotomies and debates between realism v structural complexity, linear v non-linear, genre v literary fiction. It’s a year when, apart from Occupy Me, I’ve found most of the new books I’ve tried strangely unsatisfying – not terrible or anything, not at all (at least not most of them), but just not as profound as Whitehead and Tidhar, as haunting as Priest and Miéville, or as original as Whiteley and Swainston. The exceptions are where the expertise and experience of McAuley, Macleod and Reynolds produced such pleasure, where Ninefox Gambit joined The Fifth Season as a great book to enjoy AND argue with (Victoria’s review of Yoon Ha Lee’s novel is fab btw) and where DeLillo (I’m half way through) may join the haunting duo above. Nina’s review has induced me to revisit MacInnes and work out my reaction more thoroughly – it's a book I thought I would love, but didn’t! My only regret with the shortlist announcement looming is that I haven't got around to Valente's Radiance.
   Even with the recommendations of Megan and Jonathan I just can't bring myself to trawl through a 1000 pages of Hunters and Collectors and The Lost Time Accidents. The Three Body Problem was fun though hardly revelatory so I'm not sure I'll bother with the other two. Matt Hill's Graft and de Abaitua's The Destructives didn't quite live up to my expectations - though I don't want to sound at all dismissive - they are definitely worth reading. Then there is Europe in Winter too. As with all of the Europe books I want to argue with it, but always in a constructive way I hope. I admire the project, can't wait to read the fourth one and he really deserves that BSFA award. The Power is not for me as I have already made clear. My head will explode if it wins. Beyond that there are still a handful of books I'd happily read. Well done to the judges - they have to read them all. That's a hell of a commitment.
So how do I construct a shortlist this year?
   Part of it is easy: Central Station and Occupy Me are the outstanding novels for me. At this stage if one of them doesn't win I'll be disappointed, grumpy and unbearable. No change there then! Then I include Fair Rebel - Swainston's project fascinates me and she writes SO beautifully.  Now, after doing some rereading and thinking I'm actually considering leaving out The Underground Railway. WTAF you might be thinking - I know. And it will be to include two white dudes who have already won it. Can I? Should l? Can't I just have a shortlist of 7 or 8? After all we've got AGES to read them? Actually, I'm sure I can remember someone last year making a pretty good argument for why a longer shortlist was a bad idea. Damn it! It's just that Mieville and Priest are full of things that I don't understand and I want the discussion! Moreover, weirdly, I don't want one without the other - what's that about? Then there's the third slot for a woman. Do I go with The Arrival of Missives, a book I recommended to just about everyone I knew last year, or with Jemisin. Though I would btw, happily reread A Field Guide to Reality.


  So this year I have two shortlists. Yep - cop out!! Boooooo! Though actually I''m obviously (?) going with the top one because it is full of diversity, great arguments (!!) and retains the Whitehead - a glorious, important novel and potential winner. But somehow the second one has my melancholy heart for the moment. 
1. Central Station, Occupy Me, Fair Rebel, The Underground Railroad, Ninefox Gambit, The Fifth Season.
2. Central Station, Occupy Me, Fair Rebel, This Census Taker, The Gradual, The Arrival of Missives.
[Not mentioning longlists, oh no, not me] 
Anyway, make of that what you will. 
If Version Control, Radiomen or Rosewater had been eligible I don't know what I would have done!
More thoughts on the whole shebang sometime soon....
Off to finally read the new novels by KSR and Anne Charnock. Whoop!
Just in!
The Shadow Clarke have announced their shortlist! Though of course its not as good as either of mine (tee hee!) Have a look here for a great account of their deliberations. So glad they included The Arrival of Missives! Well done to them all for such a brilliant project.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

An earlier waveform

Readers and film fans be advised. This is another post about therapy that follows on from this. Happiness and contentment are to be found elsewhere. Hopefully in the pages of a good book. Or better still, on the streets, on a good demo.

As before I post it in the hope it might help someone else and because, somehow, it helps.

   Recently, after a particularly painful therapy session, I tipped into something close to depression. I still manage to go to work and function. I still manage smiles and jokes with the girls at school but really, if at all possible, I would choose to hide in my room for an extended period of time. I'm exhausted. A little prosaic you might think - there must be better places to hide. On a beach in Spain. Somewhere on the Amazon. A Nepalese mountain. In an Instanbul market. A Texan brothel. Uluru. A cocktail bar in Moscow. Somewhere awful, dangerous, exciting, seedy, stimulating. But no.

    Wanting to hide in my room was a bit of a clue. And watching Game of Thrones from the start was another. It seems the broken, lonely 45 year old is tussling with the broken, lonely teenager that has been struggling to find a satisfactory way to live these last 35 years. How dull. And nor is it an entirely satisfactory explanation - it forgets Helen, being a nurse, being an activist, being a volunteer, trying to put myself out there and in to the world. It forgets a good fifteen years perhaps although, without doubt, some of same coping strategies were in place through those years too.

It's like a flash bulb has gone off and, startled, I've reverted to an earlier waveform. Or I'm like a cyborg suddenly aware that he might not be human after all. Or one of those old fashioned PIs who realises his old wherewithal is no defence against the wider, colossal forces laughing at him.

I'm trying on genre tropes - it's like an episode of Mr Benn.



At one point last week I got home, and my very kind house mate asked what was wrong. I replied that I was feeling the futility and joylessness of existence and went to bed. If part of me can see, a few days later, the humour in this - I can't stop myself picturing Harry Enfield's Kevin - another part recognises that the depression is real, and that it is functional and purposive. I can't be like this anymore. I can't keep on living for such thin gruel. This is it - there is nowhere else to hide. Or rather, all my hiding places no longer offer the distractions and consolatory abstractions they once did.

This teenager is moody, angry, frustrated, sad and so, ridiculously sensitive. He's watching himself all those years ago create and finesse ways to survive: distractions and abstractions yes, but also empathy and adaptability, angles and facades. You can hide a lot of yourself and your needs in trying to care for others, or worse, trying to save them. To live, as my father repeated like a mantra, day to day. To be careful and watchful, ardent too. But all this is to be trapped in an eternal present, with elements of an inescapable past.

I discovered this recently:

"Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all."

It's from Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

What shines out at me from that most of all is the bit about enthusiasm of the moment? Can one be persistent in holding on to enthusiasms of the moment, for dear life? Fuck me, this, this sums up everything. And speaks to this, about the teleology of depression:

"Life is teleology par excellence; it is the intrinsic striving towards a goal, and the living organism is a system of directed aims which seek to fulfill themselves." Or not.

The surgeon.

(The unreleased horror episode). How did Cronenberg never make a film about a surgeon trying to scoop out bits out of himself with his hands? All that queasiness and dissatisfaction. All those techniques and strategies, all that expertise that just isn't fit for purpose. All that tiredness.

The astronaut

My survival suit was made in the 1970s and 80s and I need a new model. It's worn out with all the trying and with all the floating about. It has given up the ghost. Many ghosts actually. Am I full of ghosts or full of nothing?

It's a fairly traditional space suit - white, or maybe orange, with a clear front bubble to see through. If I looked in a mirror there'd be nothing inside. Just the hollow shell, sustaining the conditions for life but otherwise lacking agency and utterly fucking pointless. 

Make me something shiny and new. Something old and comfortable. I don't mind what the fuck it looks like. 

Who am I kidding? Of course I care what it looks like. Something stylish please, something cool. My survival suit: an essay on superficiality.

The magician.

In a cage of his own construction.
All that practise, all those careful escape plans. And now, seemingly, none.
Trapped in a performance of myself and for myself.

The dancer

Dancing to the tunes in his head: slave to the rhythm.
Waiting to be chosen.


The PI (again) (and the environmentalist, the activist, the socialist, the lover)

Damn this investigation.
It's going all wrong. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman


  The first time I read The Power I read it quickly and I enjoyed it. I decided it would make an ideal group read for the 6th formers introducing them to issues around feminism and oppression – a discursive text that would raise issues I suspected they wouldn’t have thought through extensively. Beyond that I felt a mild dissatisfaction. I felt betwixt and between – a novel of ideas that didn’t feel at all strange or disorientating mashed up with a fast plot-driven text of broad brush strokes whose characters, because they felt more like caricatures, I didn’t care about. The reread this week was in the hope of finding the layers that have made it an important text for readers and critics I admire, and a way of firing up my, sadly underused, critical faculties. I’ve found that there are elements that I like and admire about the text but if anything the reread has crystallized doubts I already had. I will assume you’ve read the book – what follows contains spoilers.

 
First I find myself somewhat suspicious of the framing device that bookends the novel: who is writing? we ask – Neil a figure from the future created by Naomi Alderman. So what is it that Alderman is telling us about Neil and his view of the past. For Neil this a historical novel, a project of reimagining and of using the sources, theories and ideologies at his disposal to document what went before. What subtleties are in the text to help the reader decode Neil’s bias, his aporias, his theories? How do I separate out Neil’s ideological inconsistencies from Alderman’s? This should be fascinating: such a device could be formally mischievous and ask difficult and interesting questions of the reader but in The Power it felt too easy, too cheap a way to add a layer of ambiguity without giving the reader the tools or the clues to manage these crucial distinctions. There is a strong possibility that this is THE set of questions that will determine your reading of the novel. If you can explain the problems in the text as Neil’s problems and misunderstandings, then you might appreciate the novel more than me. But I don’t think you can.

   There are narrative choices that worry at me a great deal: Saudi Arabia as the choice for the first great riots; and then later a visit to India; Moldova as the sight of much of the action; organized crime as a lever for much of the action; rape, abuse and trafficking as the main emotive levers that drive the plot. All these choices flirt with cliché but more importantly they divert us away from complexity and from the intersections of power that that make that complexity so difficult to rationalise and comprehend. None of these narrative decisions help to destabilise troubling binaries – the US as sophisticated barbarity vs the coarse barbarity that thrives on the periphery; the even the greater complexity of the West vs the greater simplicity of the East. Take the idea that Saudi Arabia would be the first place to ignite or that it is the correct choice for this text to focus on. It becomes a lazy shorthand for OPPRESSION rather than giving a sense of how women’s oppression intersects with profound religious belief, with class tensions and the privileges of wealth. It’s easy to hate the Saudi Arabian state for all kinds of reasons, and I do, but its use here doesn’t help me to understand the world’s complexities in any depth whatsoever.

Moreover, there is no sense in the book of how class tensions would play out more generally. How would conservative and Conservative women behave in the West? How would progressives – a left liberal alliance perhaps, combat the tensions and violence? How might men and women unite? How would the institutions of capitalism respond?  In a book that is a huge What if?, and a heady provocation, there are far too many ideas that go unexplored.

However, I’d go further - the text doesn’t know how to answer them or doesn’t judge them to be important enough. Late in the book Neil inserts some more portentous philosophizing in to his account, echoing the religious and scriptural tone of other parts of the text. Roxy and Tunde are wondering how humans could behave SO badly:

“One of them says, ‘Because they could’

That is the only answer there ever is” (287)

And then at the start of the next chapter:

“These things are happening all at once. These things are the one thing. They are the inevitable result of all that went before. The power seeks its outlet. These things have happened before, they will happen again. These things are always happening…..For the earth is filled with violence, and every living thing has lost its way.”

   Neil injects into his narrative the sense of history as circular and a religious understanding of the world that is moral and inevitable combining reactionary ideas about original sin and human nature. There is the sense in the book of course that the primacy of religious understanding in our world would mean that massive changes or catastrophes will be understood by large numbers of people in religious terms and manipulated and used by others. Good, that’s one of the things I like about the text. But there is nothing in the text that even begins to suggest that agency and organisation might combat these forces and ideas. Fine, on one reading this could be part of Alderman’s vision of the future - that Neil cannot imagine human agency, organisation or resistance. But I don’t think that’s a wholly satisfactory conclusion. In the final exchanges Neil can question what is natural, he is sensibly cautious about the merits of evolutionary psychology, he can hypothesize about gender and argue over history: “the way we think our past informs what we think is possible today” (334). I think the unresolved contradictions and gaps are Alderman’s.

   The book’s epigram is from Samuel: “The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.” But ‘the people’ do not take on Samuel’s warnings. Late in the novel we learn that the voice in Allie’s head may have been that of Samuel – in this I admire Alderman’s construction of Neil’s cleverness: what a fabulous conceit. Samuel lays it all out for Allie in her great moment of crisis (318-320) and the bottom line is this: everything is really complicated and ‘the people’ always want to defer to powerful leaders. A reader could easily accuse the text at this stage of being somewhat trite but I won’t go that far – there is an element of humour in the passage that unburdens it somewhat and I like the way some of Samuel’s language here mirrors part of the Book of Eve (330). No, the main problem is that nowhere does the text try to answer why ‘the people’ will always defer to the powerful, if indeed they do. The reader might be reminded of a Churchill quote “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For politicians, and despairing liberals, the problem, and the solution, always comes back to the poor judgement of ‘the people’ rather than the institutions and structures that impoverish, alienate and deter wide sections of our communities.

   Neil’s account provides us with some evidence of course, you see the slick operations of US capital as Margot climbs the slippery pole to the top and increasingly becomes embroiled with the military industrial complex; you see the inanity of the media; you get insights into the influence of religious ideology – this is especially well done since his account returns again and again to those segments of religious language: “The end of all flesh is near, because the Earth is filled with violence. Therefore, build an ark.” (325) ; you get to see the opportunism involved with Imperialism, on various sides. But it really is all incredibly superficial. There is also the mystery of power. It’s a while since I read Foucault but I remember being annoyed by the notions of diffuse and omnipresent power that cropped up again and again in critical theory when postmodernism and post structuralism were the dominant discourses back in the day. The text infers a similar entity but it’s one I don’t accept; complexity – yes, of course, but something that is infinite, scattered and inexplicable, no.

   It seems to me that The Power might be one of those texts that has already been outdone by our mad, perverse and apocalyptic days. It’s not just that climate change overshadows everything, though it does, but that the crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism, accelerating technological change and many other factors are creating the conditions for new expressions of older phenomenon. I’ve realised, reading the Clarke books this year, that I want texts that help me understand what is emerging. And I’ve realised, more than ever before, that this is probably a really stupid expectation. Authors face the same contradictory ideologies, they have the same desires and hopes, they are open to the illusions of liberalism, the prospect of despair, the bias of the media. I hate Brexit and the racism it has unleashed but I recognise that Europe is no answer either. You only have to think about the bodies amassing in the Mediterranean and the way Greece was crushed to understand that it is a bosses Europe that has no great interest in the wellbeing of the majority of its citizens. I hate Trump but despise Clinton and all she stands for too. You want your USA back? Seriously? That’s the USA of war and racism, of police brutality and guns. I could go on and on and on but the reality is this: business as usual means we are utterly screwed. Climate change will accelerate and exacerbate tensions over refugees and war, over food security and energy provision, over nationalism and borders, over every part of lives. And it is accelerating faster than most of us can dare to admit. Can we fight back the current crisis so that new democracies will be able to make sensible decisions over the environment? Is that the question? Whatever your answer I suspect the victory of Trump and Brexit, the possibility of Le Pen, means that Alderman’s narrative choices are even more questionable than I would have otherwise considered.

So what am I trying to say? I suspect that writing SF is a harder job and more unforgiving than ever. And for me that means going through a process of finding anew what I think is valuable and resisting the idea that there will be many texts offering me the answers and ideas that I crave or perturbing me in affecting ways. Reading Mike Harrison leaves me bereft, troubled, shattered, prised apart. Reading Ali Smith or Penelope Fitzgerald leaves me happy, hopeful, measured, joyful. They do so with techniques, precision and understandings I struggle with. They are profound and exciting.

I don’t expect all texts to achieve those dizzy heights. Nor do I forget the limits of bourgeois art. We live in confused and conservative times – I don’t expect a bubbling up of revolutionary ideas or techniques – how could I? Nor do I forget the omnipresence of commercial pressure, new books pushed on us by a calendar of hype and promotion, shortlists and prizes. So what then becomes compensation enough if you don’t find full satisfaction with the ideas expressed in a text? Fine writing? Formal experimentation? Political engagement? The weird and the uncanny? Emotion? Empathy? All of these actually, though I don’t pretend to understand the alchemy involved in separating out the great from the good. And I think that this is a question that intersects with notions of taste. A lifetime of reading and watching films makes me feel, for the most part, that I can trust my taste and my impressions. Yet I can still occasionally be seduced by grandeur and (false) gravitas. I can be seduced by art I don’t understand and sometimes it will be far less profound on closer inspection. I can be swayed too be shitty arguments, especially when they are reinforced by a constant media blitz. Perhaps most of all there is the problem of limited knowledge, restricted horizons and so on. Mystery and uncertainty can be tempting and bewitching but sometimes you just come up against the limits of your own knowledge.

So apologies for focusing on the negatives. I’ll repeat: The Power a good novel, well worth your time: It’s already on a number of longlists. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it – I have pages of notes - and I’m looking forward to those discussions with the 6th formers when the paperback comes out. Do any of them really believe that women would do a better job of ruling than men? Do they appreciate the power and divisiveness of simple choices (of say, a referendum)? Where do they think power lies? And so on. Really good, important questions. There are subtleties that I really enjoyed too, especially the passages early in the book when the evocative smells of the emerging Power blend into passages of religious prose. I like the ironies and reversals in the final exchange between Naomi and Neil. But for me the text doesn’t encompass or explore the complexity that Samuel asserts and there are not enough pleasures or discomforts in the text to win me over or inflame my curiosity.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Clarke Award and THE Shadow.



If you haven't been paying attention (!!!) the Clarke Submission list is here.
All the Shadow Clarke info can be found here. I recommend reading all the individual posts, shortlists AND the comments!
All the Shadow Clarke shortlists have now been submitted.
With nine jurors choosing six books each we could have had a maximum of 54 novels. In the end we have 27 – not a bad spread! They are:
The Power — Naomi Alderman (Penguin Viking) 3
Songshifting — Chris Bell (wordsSHIFTminds)
Good Morning, Midnight — Lily Brooks-Dalton (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) 2
The Destructives — Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot) 2
Zero K — Don DeLillo (Picador)
The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen (Bloomsbury) 3
Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Graft — Matt Hill (Angry Robot)
Europe in Winter — Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin (Orbit) 2
A Field Guide to Reality — Joanna Kavenna (riverrun) 4
The Man Who Spoke Snakish — Andrus Kivirähk (Grove Press UK), translated by Christopher Moseley
Death’s End — Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books) 2
Empire V — Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)
The Gradual — Christopher Priest (Gollancz) 3
The Trees — Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury)
The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (Grove Press UK) 4
Hunters & Collectors — M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape)
Occupy Me — Tricia Sullivan (Gollancz) 2
Fair Rebel — Steph Swainston (Gollancz) 2
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing) 4
Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead (Fleet) 5
The Arrival of the Missives — Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) 2
Azanian Bridges — Nick Wood (NewCon Press) 2
The Lost Time Accidents — John Wray (Canongate)
Notable books that have missed out on Sharke discussion? Maybe these:
All the Birds in the Sky — Charlie Jane Anders (Titan)
Daughter of Eden — Chris Beckett (Daughter of Eden)
The Wolf Road — Beth Lewis (Borough)
The Corporation Wars: Dissidence — Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
Into Everywhere — Paul McAuley (Gollancz)
This Census-Taker — China Miéville (Picador)
After Atlas — Emma Newman (Roc)
The Sudden Appearance of Hope — Claire North (Orbit)
Revenger — Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
Underground Airlines — Ben Winters (Century)
 Feel free to analyse away to your hearts content!
   Of the 37 books here I’ve read 16 so add in a few extras for various reasons and that leaves me about 25 to read before May 3rd when the shortlist is announced. I won’t read that many as I have too far too much else to read and do so I’ll have to prioritise.
   How many? Will I do it? Will I stop caring? I’m not sure.
   I’ve read quite a few of these books over the last 2 weeks and my sense so far is that I’ve read some good books – thete are lots of good things about the Sinisalo and the Kavenna is excellent - but nothing as remarkable as those I read last year – like Whitehead, Tidhar and Whiteley. [I’d add Swainston to those three but I haven’t got to Fair Rebel yet]

   Part of the problem perhaps is that I have been reading other remarkable novels in 2017: older classics from Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark and Alan Garner plus contemporary stuff from Han Kang and Dana Spiotta. These novels manage to be uncanny, weird, complex and profound in ways that leave those others severely wanting I’m afraid. That is vaguely disappointing perhaps, but it’s the process - of making me think through more closely than ever why I’m reading, what I value, and a variety of issues surrounding genre fiction – that is proving to be key.
   I’m really looking forward to all the posts and discussions from the Shadow Clarke jurors.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Best books of 2016

I read around 100 books in 2016. Considering that I managed only 3 or 4 books in July, September, October and November combined I'm reasonably content. There will be little here to surprise readers of this blog or those who keep up with the book world, but, that said, it's been a great year for books. I get most of my ideas from the Guardian, Strange Horizons and from the writers and critics I've learned to trust. 

I would urge any book lover to try some of these if you haven't already.

My favourite fiction of 2016:

Barkskins - Annie Proulx



Days Without End - Sebastian Barry 
The Underground Railway - Colson Whitehead
Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi
The Sellout - Paul Beatty
The Vegetarian - Han Kang
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
Central Station - Lavie Tidhar
What is Not Yours is Not Yours - Helen Oyeyemi
The Arrival of Missives - Aliya Whiteley
The Shore - Sara Taylor
Speak Gigantular - Irenosen Okojie


Francis Spufford - Golden Hill
Jenni Fagan - The Sunlight Pilgrims
Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

Special mentions:

I see a number of people are putting The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts on their lists and I'm happy to repeat myself and do the same. It came out right at the end of 2015 and I read it immediately. This novel and his previous one Bete, deserve to be read widely. They are brilliant. Please keep pushing the envelope.
I despair that more people haven't talked about Alexis Wright's The Swan Book. 


Finally Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins - like the Roberts, I read on the cusp of the New Year and loved.

Passions (new and ongoing): Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Taylor, W. G. Sebald and Jane Gardam.

Finally read and loved: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul (thanks Lavie Tidhar!)

Non-fiction

This is VERY predictable but it doesn't matter. If you haven't read Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, Olivia Laing's The Lonely City and Lara Pawson's This is The Place to Be then you need to get on and read them asap. They all made me cry and gasp and re-evaluate my life and my ways of thinking. They'll all get reread in 2017.
Late in the year I loved Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States. They are fantastic companions to many of those fiction texts above.

YA 

The outstanding discoveries of the year are Alex Wheatle's Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights and Robin Stevens' Murder Most UnLadylike series. Other great books are Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder, Gary D Schulz's Orbiting Jupiter, Sarah Pinborough's The Death House and Alexia Casale's The Bone Dragon. I've also discovered Emma Carroll, Melinda Sainsbury and Edward Carey.  


New Year

I have so much to catch up on you wouldn't believe. Hopefully, at some point soon, I'll start writing again. 

This year I want to read more non-fiction. When I was an activist probably 80% of my reading was non-fiction but this year I'd be happy with something approaching a 50/50 split. 

Thanks to all the writers and critics who have inspired me in what was easily one of the most difficult years of my life. 

Finally book lovers, if you don't listen to the Backlisted podcast you really should. Their enthusiasm and love of books is infectious.