Monday, 24 December 2018

Films of the Year 2018



2018: the return of Lucrecia Martel and Debra Granik; 2 films from Sebastián Lelio; masterpieces from Alfonso Cuarón, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Valeska Grisebach and Andrea Arnold; some of the best YA films ever (hyperbole - me!?). Plus, who would have believed Paul Schrader could still make a film this good? Why hasn’t Widows received the praise it deserves? Why haven't you all seen Faces Places???

It has been a truly awful year in many ways but a rare one for movie lovers. Most of the films listed below raise significant political and social questions without ever offering complacent answers. I've put a couple of crowd pleasers in the top 20 just to show that I haven't lost my genre roots - there just hasn't been a Logan or a Fury Road to get behind this year so I've fallen back on other old loves - musicals and YA movies.

There seem to be more films being made in the US by black filmmakers. Moreover it's the range of tone and style that is just as exciting as the number being made. People might wonder why The Hate U Give places higher than more formally inventive films like Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman. I'm a sucker for a good YA film anyway but I also watched it with an audience mainly composed of young black and Asian youth who responded to it as I did with oohs and aahs, tears and indignation. It even got some applause at the end - fairly unusual in Birmingham cinemas. I persuaded 9 other people to see it in the week that followed. We need subtle examinations of our broken societies, we need acerbic satires but we also need the odd, rousing call to arms wrapped up in a coming of age drama that everyone can appreciate. If you didn't see it I urge everyone to support it when it comes out on DVD/streaming etc. Note too that Life and Nothing More - a fine neorealist take on poverty, racism and working class lives in the US - is easy and cheap to stream.
There are are more must-watch films coming to UK cinemas early in 2019. I can't wait to see Hale County This Morning, This Evening, If Beale Street Could Talk and Regina Hall in working class comedy Support the Girls.

It should be easily evident that many of those films below feature fantastic roles for women. If you haven't already, make sure you watch Leave no Trace, A Fantastic Woman and Shoplifters. They are, anyway, beautiful, mesmerising and urgent films but they also feature performances by Thomasin McKenzie, Daniela Vega and Sakura Ando that are - I'm not sure what words to use really - otherworldly, fierce and profoundly tender: subtle yet eye-catchingly perfect. The criticisms of Roma are fascinating but watching it for the second time I find myself thinking about the performance of Yalitza Aparicio more and more. Finally I'd urge you to watch Beast. It's a fairy tale noir that had me thinking about all the noirs and anti-heroes I've loved before - Jessie Buckley in the lead role is mesmerising.

And yes, then there is Zama. The Headless Woman and La Nina Santa are films I've watched repeatedly, studying the unique techniques and tones of Lucrecia Martel and now we have another film to study, appreciate and love. For some this will be a hard sell but I would urge you to give it a go.

If you need to be convinced further there are plenty of great articles around that will provide clever and subtle insights. Try Sight and Sound, Little White Lies, Variety, Roger Ebert, Film Comment and the Guardian.

There is little here that you won't find on many of the 'Best of' Lists so its easy to find reviews and recommendations, context and background.

My top 5 in a Sight and Sound stylee:

  •    Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
  •    Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  •    A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
  •    Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
  •   Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Related image

I usually have a top 10 (or twelve) but this year it’s a Top 20! 


Image result for Shoplifters
  1. Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
  2. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  3. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
  4. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
  5. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  6. The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.)
  7. Faces Places (Agnes Garda)
  8. Western (Valeska Grisebach)
  9. You Were Never Really Here (Andrea Arnold)
  10. Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  11. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
  12. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo)
  13. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
  14. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
  15. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
  16. A Ballad for Buster Scruggs (Coen Brothers)
  17. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhava)
  18. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
  19. Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
  20. Love Simon (Greg Berlanti)
Image result for First Reformed


I would happily watch all of these again too and on a different day some of them would be in the top 20:
  • Life and Nothing More (Antonio Méndez Esparza)
  • Widows (Steve McQueen)
  • Jeune Femme (Léonor Serraille)
  • BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
  • The Square (Ruben Östlund)
  • The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey)
  • I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
  • Beast (Michael Pearce)
  • Annihilation (Alex Garland)
  • Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
  • Coco (Lee Unkrich)
  • Apostasy (Dan Kokotajlo)
  • Summer 1993 (Carla Simon)
Note too that The Golden Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) is my Christmas morning film this year and so that isn't included.


Image result for Faces Places


What is everyone else watching?
Of the top 100 grossing films in the UK this year I've seen 25. I have no desire to watch most of the others - maybe another 10 when they are free on TV. I went to the cinema 2 or 3 times a week for the best part of 10 years and saw all  kinds of instantly forgettable crap. Never again! What's noticeable is the quantity of children's films and the number of poorly reviewed blockbusters that are on the list. So, great that families are going to the cinema but, obviously, you have to ask what part critics play in cultural debate amongst the majority of working class people and since the answer is probably not much, should anyone care? 

Bourgeois
It's always been the case that most of the films I watch are from Hollywood or the art-house circuit. I often wish there were easy (and cheap) ways of seeing other films and more documentaries as it's clear there are a different layer of films out there. So I would point you to the Louis Proyect Blog. He is fun to disagree with and there is a lot to discover in the films he reviews and searches out.

Discursive
Many of these films will generate some sharp disagreements and discussions I suspect. I loved the experience of watching BlacKkKlansman for instance but Spike Lee made some very debateable decisions with the source material. Owen Glieberman poses some fantastic questions about First Reformed in his Variety articles. There are two differing opinions on Zvyagintsev's Loveless in Sight and Sound, and so on  There is much to be discovered if you find yourself fascinated, angry or confused.

Disappointments?
I LOVE most Wes Anderson movies but have no desire to see Isle of Dogs ever again. Oscar season was fine but somewhat forgettable – I enjoyed The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As for Phantom Thread? I'm not convinced and though i'm usually happy to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's films again and again, I'm not eager at all with this one. I may be wrong though.... Finally A Gentle Creature...I like, often love, tortuous and difficult eastern European films and I'm a Sergei Loznitsa fan but I'm not sure about this. Nor am I ready for a second viewing quite yet! 

Guilty pleasures?
I Tonya and Thoroughbreds are terrific and there is no guilt involved whatsoever. BUT…I left my brain at home when I went to see Molly’s Game and enjoyed it too much - It has all kinds of the usual Aaron Sorkin related issues! And yes, I almost put Red Sparrow in my Top 20. A violent thriller with a Hollywood goddess in the lead role - what's not to love?

Blockbusters
I saw a few of them - less than usual perhaps - and enjoyed Deadpool 2 and Mission Impossible. I realize why Black Panther is so important and so unusual - I did a lot of reading and listening, and I learned a lot. I loved the women, but thought the men were a little lacking in charisma and thought the last half hour was pretty dull in a generic superhero film kind of way. Please don’t hate me!

Genre
Hereditary, Mandy and A Prayer Before Dawn are all worth watching and will generate much discussion! I enjoyed A Quiet Place but wonder if it is somewhat reactionary. And what about Revenge? I'm not confident that it is the feminist indie it thinks it is but I kind of loved it and will look forward to the next film from Coralie Fargea. 

Missed!
Of note, I still haven't caught up with The Rider, Dogman, Bad Times at the El Royale, 22 July, The Happy Prince and Shirkers. And many more! Less than a hundred films this year so I'm sure there are, especially, plenty of documentaries and independent worth watching. Also these lists are Africa and Asia lite. Birmingham IS a difficult place to watch new films but I suspect the market for independent foreign movies is diminishing? And Peterloo? I've hardly ever liked a Mike Leigh film and just couldn't be arsed. :-)


Bollywood
Just give me an F. I mean to start again in the New Year with renewed vigour ;-)

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Interlude



“I'm afraid of people who claim their experience of themselves & the world isn't fractured & fragmentary, when it clearly is; but I'm even more afraid of people who genuinely don't experience things that way.” M John Harrison

   April to November was lost to depression, an accompanying anxiety and some middling (for me) self-destructive behaviours. I call it depression but more accurately it has been about grief and despair. It felt like all my usual safety valves were missing and I was unable to look away. Some of this was about myself – approaching middle age and unable to imagine a way forward, a way to live and thrive - and some to do with my family – I’ll let you off that part.

   But the personal stuff is intimately connected to the much larger grief of the social and political – homeless people everywhere, refugees treated like criminals, the people of Syria and Yemen left to die, the hourly violence directed at people of colour and women, the daily inequality and injustice, the rise of the right and of fascism, the extraordinary stupidity and venality of politicians and of course, more than anything, the accelerating environmental crisis. I have been unable to shut it out. Often the horror of a present and a future I can clearly see has eclipsed any sense of daily pleasure, wonder or satisfaction.

   I suspect I am not alone in this.

   I have largely been unable to read – the readers amongst you will know how painful that is. Fiction has felt pointless. I hate that I’ve felt that way. Movies, a constant source of emotional stability, sustenance and inspiration since I was young, have felt pointless too, though I have, almost on muscle memory, still managed to visit the cinema occasionally.

  The current mini project of posting images on Facebook – I’ve posted an image a day for 10 days of movies that had an impact on me aged 6 to 11 – has thus been a small way to reengage with myself and with memory and what is important. A bit of therapy perhaps. Though I need to go back to the £60 a week variety!

The movies I choose, in the order I saw them, were:
·         Watership Down (1978)
·         West Side Story (1961)
·         North by Northwest (1959)
·         Singing in the Rain (1952)
·         Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
·         The Magnificent Seven (1960)
·         Planet of the Apes (1968)
·         Some Like it Hot (1959)
·         Elmer Gantry (1960)
·         All the Presidents Men (1976)

   Already you start to see the main influences. Westerns, musicals and SF were part of the family geography that remain lifelong loves – little islands of stability and meaning in a household that was becoming increasingly dysfunctional (or maybe I was just becoming more aware of the disfunction). More than that I was already watching lots of films by myself – hundreds of westerns certainly, but also Hollywood films of all kinds from the 40s, 50s and 60s that were a constant on the nation’s 3 channels back then and increasingly the political cinema of the 70s. My love of movie stars, of glamour and beauty, of romance, of melancholy, of screen violence are all there too. All have remained, and for a socialist and critical thinker, it is hard to admit that some of those superficial elements are still central to my dreams and desires. I am still beguiled by beautiful charismatic men and women. If they can sing and dance too…

   My memory is terrible but I can remember the feeling of watching all those films for the first time – the wonder and the weirdness, the joy and excitement and, more than anything, a huge and complicated world being revealed to me. The yearning to connect and to escape my loneliness is ever present but on most days of my 47 years if you’d offered me the choice of a good film or the chance to go out and meet people there would have only been one answer.

   There are 5 films that didn’t make it though they were probably just as influential:
·         Star Wars – obviously perhaps. Growing up in the late 70s the new blockbusters would have a huge impact on many of us.
·         Superman 1 and 2 – Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder!!! Duh!?
·         True Grit – I watched all the John Wayne films again and again. This is still a brilliant, beautiful film. And it has Glen Campbell!
·         The Jazz Singer – what can I say? Neil Diamond was big in our house.
·         Grease - a rare trip to the cinema with the women of my family: my mum, sister, auntie and cousin.

Pink Ladies Grease Quotes. QuotesGram

I’m going to continue with the project and hope that I can start writing a little. I have started lists for my teen years and for my adult years. Already I don’t how I can cut numbers down and how I will avoid editorializing. What have I forgotten? What don’t I want to admit? What has changed? How can I place things in order when my memory is so hazy? How do I separate out the moments that formed me from the ones that didn’t? How does one avoid it becoming an exercise in nostalgia? Luckily, more than ever I don’t care what people might think. Woody Allen, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and various other divisive figures will all feature. Better the truth – as near as I can get to it – than a definite lie.

For anyone out there going through a difficult time I hope you get through it. I’m 6 weeks without hitting self-destruct and 2 weeks back at the gym. Baby steps. And just about able to engage with some of the things I love. People? They are still a way off.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Clarke Award 2018

This year there are 108 books on the submissions list so first of all well done to the judges - that is a massive undertaking to read so much. I've only read a tawdry 24 and doubt I'll get round to too many more - with the Man Booker International and the Women's Prize long lists plus my own non-fiction projects there isn't enough time! For the record I've read Allan, Barker, Booth, Bradley, Campbell, Charnock, Doctorow, Hamid, Harkaway, Helle, Hunter, Jemisin, Kalfar, Leckie, Ha Lee, Lennon, McAuley, Mieville, Newitz, Palmer, Roberts, Robinson, Tea, Vandermeer. I hope to get through Kleeman, Robson and maybe Sullivan before I go to back to school.

OK, so I've done a quick search and I believe there is a 2:1 split with around 72 of the texts written by men. There were a couple of authors obviously keeping their gender from the publicity material and I didn't want to pry any further. Apologies if the number is out by one or two. I believe their are 5 BAME authors. Again, my search was relatively thorough but could be slightly out. Whatever way you want to think about those numbers you'd have to be somewhat heartbroken at the state of publishing and the state of the world. There are all kinds of initiatives in other realms and I would humbly suggest that everyone involved in SF and fantasy need to do more. 

     The good news however is that there are some brilliant books on that list. So many that my first request to the judges is to REBEL because I'm going to cheat and have a shortlist of 8: I think they should do the same too. Mwahahahahahahaha. Yep, don't care. Or rather, I do care.

First of all it allows me to contentedly keep to my own rules - at least a 50/50 split of men/women and at least 2 books by BAME authors in the shortlist; it also allows me to include all the books that I believe should be part of the discussion. That said I'm completely open to reading more of the books - if there is something like The Swan Book hiding in there I hope someone will let me know asap. I'm sure the Shadow Clarke discussions will persuade me to read more too.

There's one novel in particular that I love, but can't find a place for it on list - I would urge you all to read Spaceman of Bohemia. I'd also recommend Campbell, Lennon and Vandermeer - fantastic novels. It's nearly two years since I read Clade so it isn't imprinted in my mind like the other novels but it's a really important book and I'm hoping one of the Shadow Clarke writers will choose to think about it. I read The Real Town Murders last August and it suffered a little from my glum mood. I reread it again a couple of weeks ago along with Matha Wells's All Systems Red and I can easily say that it was the most joyful reading weekend of the year. Both novels are smart, funny and tense - a wonderful and unusual combination. Read them both.

More generally? There certainly is a lot of dystopian writing going on at the moment isn't there? I have to say that I find quite a bit of it irritating. What's most annoying is that some writers don't seem very interested in ideology or in the mechanisms of social and political change. It also seems as if many have bought into essentialist and determinist ideas about human nature. I appreciate that it's difficult - these are dark and absurd times. Our political leaders are venal and opportunistic simpletons. Their partnership with the ruling class makes for despair and fearfulness. I think it's genuinely difficult for people to imagine progressive political organisation and collective action unimpeded by a craven media and state bigotry. Yet I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell desperate, perhaps, to remind me that humans are social beings that yearn for community, purposefulness and meaningful work too. Is there a way to throw off the muck of ages and the rank ideologies of capitalism? I don't know, but I do want my dystopias, utopias and SF to have some kind of interesting and searching political awareness. My suspicion is that too many are failing in this regard.

My now traditional (and provisional) list then:

The Rift - Nina Allan. Along with Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone, my novel of the year. It's sensational and fully deserves its BSFA and Kitschiest awards. A novel, like Central Station last year, to fall in love with.

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid. I read this almost a year ago I guess. There are lots of people in the speculative community that love this book. I have a reservation or two and so hope to read it again and join in Shadow Clarke discussions. Whatever my doubts it needs and deserves to be part of the discussion.

Gnomon - Nick Harkaway. Blimey! SO much to think about. So many notes. Mind blown.

The Stone Sky - N.K.Jemisin. I intend to read all three again before the Clarke is awarded and get my head around the full weight of the achievement.

Austral - Paul McAuley. Beautiful. McAuley is such a brilliant writer and this may be his best novel. Maybe his most important one too?

Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer. Copious notes and looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson. There is so much I need to say about this novel. I know that some think it too big and baggy, some think it too Keynesian and too liberal. I loved every second and I'm fascinated by the decisions Robinson has made and the (possible) effects they have. Essay on the way.

Black Wave - Michelle Tea. Weirdly for me, I've been listening to this when I run. It's brilliantly read by Tea herself. As pleasurable in its way as the Harkaway (which is saying something)

First of all this list is almost identical to one Adam Roberts posted on Twitter. I promise I'm not copying Adam! Ian Mond and Nina Allan have played the same game so take a look at their provisional lists too. Finally people will know that I am a big Nicola Barker fan and maybe surprised by the exclusion of H(A)ppy. Weirdly perhaps, reading Gnomon subsequently has made me revise my ideas a little but there is much I can't seem to forgive in it. More later...

Good look to the judges and everyone involved. Don't forget that rebellion is GOOD.

Looking forward to the Shadow Clarke discussions with much anticipation.

All twitter recommendations appreciated :-)

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.