Friday 25 April 2014

Anger management - the BSFA awards and the Clarke

   I tried not to be grumpy but I haven’t managed it. Apologies in advance.

   As much as I love speculative fiction I still feel like an outsider – I still read more ‘literary fiction’, so when it comes to the awards season I tend to get a little frustrated and this year is no different. First, I should say that I don’t really take any notice of the Hugos but I can see that the fiction categories and film category (whatever it’s called!) are particularly awful. I watch the debates on twitter and don’t have any good answers for now so I’ll move on. The BSFA Awards were a weird mixture. I think Jeff Vandameer’s Wonderbook and Nina Allan’s Spin are brilliant and I like Ancillary Justice (more below) but the award for Ack Ack Macaque feels like an award for mediocrity – in terms of the quality of its ideas and its writing the novel is clearly inferior to the other four novels. I don’t understand it.

   Nor do I understand how Nexus or The Disestablishment of Paradise found their way on to the Clarke shortlist. I admire anyone with the discipline to finish either novel. I didn’t, life is WAY too short – they make Tim Powers’ Declare look like a masterpiece [2011 was the last time I read a whole shortlist, and yes, OK, apologies for the hyperbole]. Anyway, replacing those two with say Maddaddam, Strange Bodies or The Violent Century would have made it a very strong shortlist indeed. What a shame Kate Atkinson didn’t submit Life after Life too. People might reasonably accuse me of prioritising speculative fiction that blurs boundaries rather than core SF and I think that would be fair. Others might say that it’s all subjective – they’d be wrong.

   Who should win? I admire the ambition of Ancillary Justice and God’s War a lot though I enjoyed Leckie’s novel more and have too many issues with God’s War. For me it’s between Smythe and Priest and as much as I appreciate the boldness and sophistication of The Adjacent I hope The Machine wins. I read it in February, it’s still with me and I think it’s a great novel.

The Adjacent - Christopher Priest

   I finally got round to reading Christopher Priest’s latest, Clarke and BSFA Award nominated, The Adjacent. If you’ve never read a Priest novel I would urge you to give him a try: he has been writing good or great novels for over forty years. He’s won the BSFA Award four times and the Clarke once in 2002 with The Separation, and it was surprising when The Islanders didn’t make the Clarke shortlist in 2012. Christopher Nolan’s film version of The Prestige is good, but unsurprisingly, the novel is better. So how good is The Adjacent, and if I were a Priest newbie, would it be a good starting point? Maybe it would.

   First I’ll direct you to some other reviews. John Clute gets to the heart of Priest’s novel here, as does Paul Kincaid here and Adam Roberts here. I also like Paul Di Filippo’s review for Locus. They’ve all been reading genre fiction and Priest for much longer, and with greater focus, than I have so I would urge you to examine their insights.

  Priest’s prose sometimes gets criticised as functional and plain, and I can understand why but it’s misplaced. It is certainly never showy, and figures of speech are few and far between, but actually his prose is exact, crystal clear, fluent and deceptively nuanced. So the first thing to say is how easy and exciting The Adjacent is to read – you see and understand the action in Priest’s worlds perfectly even as you feel excited, uneasy, perplexed or contemplative. There are eight sections to the novel, sometimes written in first person, sometimes in third that evoke different moods, times and places seemingly effortlessly. Furthermore Priest teaches you how to read his novel. The first section depicts a future world in a state of dramatic geopolitical instability due to accelerating climate change but the second section is narrated by a stage illusionist Tommy Trent who meets H.G. Wells on his way to the allied front during WW1. Priest immediately directs the reader to start identifying themes, contrasts and comparisons, between his possible future and the past(s) he evokes, as well as differences in voice, register and style amongst the different sections of the novel. He also wants you to ask why – why jump to WW1 and what kind of novel is this that does so (especially when you realise that this is the only section to visit that era)? In the paragraphs that lay out Tommy’s stagecraft the reader is also reminded of the novelist’s craft and techniques of subtlety, misdirection and defamilarization and, as he listens carefully to Wells, Tommy admits “my own mind was racing on all sorts of adjacent subjects”. This is undoubtedly a novel of adjacent subjects.

   BUT, as I read back those last few sentences I wonder if I make Priest’s novel sound trite. Aren’t these the things good literature is supposed to do? I can only say that the experience of reading The Adjacent is a fecund experience full of pleasure and unease as you continually make connections, ponder their significance and try to make sense of their place in the text - whilst always testing out their emotional and rational ‘power’ and their relevance to the ‘real’.  
   You might also find yourself unconvinced with regard to the novel’s structure and cohesiveness. Are some of the sections too divorced from each other? How much sense does it really make? Does the novel accrue weight and significance or does it feel too much like a game or a puzzle? The Adjacent draws attention to itself as a fiction and is thus a metafiction (as are all Priest’s novels), but a very bold and showy kind of metafiction. The breaks between sections are dramatic and mystifying. On one level Priest is showing you that you can only make sense of the text by attending carefully to the complexity of its construction – I think Clute calls it a ‘God game’, yet paradoxically some of the most powerful sections are when Priest evokes the reality of the world wars, the bravery and adventure of Krystyna, and the power of nature. This tension accounts for much of The Adjacent’s success. Priest is also brilliant at landscapes and their mood: on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think that it’s a strangely romantic and pastoral novel.

   Over the course of the novel two further things happen. First the sections in the future become more unsettling, strange and uncanny. The second is hard to quantify without some pretty rigorous textual analysis, but I think the language warms slightly, or to put it slightly differently the icy control of earlier sections loosens and thus helps the reader to embrace the finale.

   The Adjacent wants us to examine how we think about the world, to remember the past – the mistakes, the violence, the horror, but crucially to remember some of the saving graces in the face of that horror. The descriptions of environmental change in the future are brilliantly done, as are the descriptions of nature throughout the novel with which he invites comparison. That said I’d love to ask Priest about his future Britain because I think his Islamic Republic is a mistake, a bum note or a bad joke in a formidable symphony. I can easily imagine a Christian fundamentalism achieving hegemony in Britain or in other nations of the West as economic and environmental disaster precipitate change but the ongoing anti-Islamic propaganda in Britain makes it the most unlikely of futures imaginable. I have other issues but I don’t think I can resolve them without a second reading. For instance Priest brilliantly evokes the camaraderie and collective effort of the war years but I wonder if this is a little too romantic and the implications, conservative. Despite these doubts, and in part because of them, Priest’s novel is audacious, potent and quite brilliant.

Thursday 10 April 2014


I loved Queen.

Bollywood - we want more like THIS.

If you want a review Anna Vetticad does it perfectly here.

It will undoubtedly be in my top 10 Bollywood movies of the year and I suspect my overall top 10 too. Kangna Ranaut is SO good.

If you love Bollywood, don't miss it at the cinema.

If you're a Bollywood virgin, don't miss it at the cinema!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Book stuff

Some book stuff.

 I didn't quite manage my 100 pages of fiction a day in March - it was somewhere nearer 80, but since I also read some non-fiction I'm still happy.
My major discovery was Ian McDonald. I loved his YA debut Planesrunner and then went on to read River of Gods. Reading McDonald, Frances Hardinge and Nicola Griffith's Hild (review to come soon) in quick succession has spoiled me I suspect. It's been a lovely month of reading.


The Bailey's Prize shortlist is out:
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah (Fourth Estate)
  • Hannah Kent - Burial Rites (Picador)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri - The Lowland (Bloomsbury)
  • Audrey Magee - The Undertaking (Atlantic Books)
  • Eimear McBride - A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar/Faber and Faber)
  • Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch (Little, Brown)

Most of these will have to wait till May; good list though.

I met Ana via the magic of twitter. Her blog is well worth a look and this is her own latest round-up of useful links.

Elsewhere on the twitterverse it became apparent that Adam Roberts will be doing this year's Clarke Award review/discussion for Strange Horizons. I shall look forward to that as always. Meanwhile there's a review of Ancillary Justice just up and Roberts has quick reviews of new books by David Ramirez and Nnedi Okorafor at Sibilant Fricative - both look interesting.

Ian Sales has updated his SF Mistressworks top 100 in a post here - unfortunately I have hardly read any!

Jonathan McCalmont's essay on Catching Fire will, I fancy, provoke fans and geeks of all persuasions. Excellent!

I realise that during the short history of this blog I've yet to urge anyone to read M John Harrison. So, go on, read Light. It will challenge and entertain you in ways you never thought possible.

God's War - Kameron Hurley

   If you’re interested in fantasy and science-fiction then you’ll probably want to read Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. In a comment on Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review, Niall Harrison (editor of Strange Horizons) wrote:

I think you're right to peg it as a zeitgeist novel: I read it about a year ago now, and it hit me square between the eyes because it did everything I'd been wanting a sf novel to do in one go. It was generically fluid (in dialogue with many different parts of the field, I think), rampantly intersectional, unashamedly ambitious yet also (it seemed to me) solidly commercial. It felt to me like a book that lots of different types of reader would respond to, and that would expand the kinds of discussion lots of readers would have about sf.

   Harrison championed the book when it came out in 2011 (in the US) and now, with a UK release last May, it has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award and the Clarke Award. It also won the 2011 Kitschies Golden Tentacle for best debut novel. That said it has also come in for a fair amount of criticism too. Dan Hartland provides links to much of the debate here and I would urge any reader to follow the discussion when you sit down to consider the book. There are also blog posts with Hurley here, here and here.
   Nyx is a Bel Dame, a woman employed by her country Nasheen to retrieve and mercilessly kill deserters from their war with Chenja. These two nations, the largest on the planet of Umaya though other smaller nations exist and we meet characters from there too, have been at war for centuries so the people know no other way of living. Violence at every level of society is endemic. With all the men fighting at the front, Nasheen has become a matriarchal society. Women do all the jobs, most of their sexual relationships are lesbian; some are bisexual. The novel follows a complex plot. A short prologue sees Nyx lose her Bel Dame licence and go to prison for doing illegal work. Out of prison she has gathered a team of misfits and immigrants to help her do bounty work before being hired by the Queen of Nasheen to find and retrieve an alien, from the planet of New Kinaan, who has gone missing. This central plot sees Nyx’s team pulled in all directions as various factions in the Nasheenian ruling class fight for alien technology.

   Above all God’s War is ambitious. In Nasheen we have a matriarchal society that is just as violent, corrupt and foul as any society dominated by men. Kameron takes on the argument that any society dominated by women would somehow be fairer, more egalitarian or different in crucial ways. On Umaya it’s the larger social, political and economic structures that shape behaviour as they do under capitalism. This also has a crucial twist. Sexual relationships and desire are also mediated by the way Nasheen has developed. This is the best part of the novel and, even considered alone would make God’s War an impressive achievement. This is Hurley describing what she has done:

Writing the character of Nyx – a bisexual bounty hunter with the brute sensibilities of Conan and grim optimism of a lottery junkie – was the first time I tackled writing a character who explicitly desired folks of either sex. What she desired in folks tended to vary, but in general she found the too-pretty and the plainly ugly equally fascinating: the pretty because they seemed out of place on a toxic, contaminated world, and the ugly because it showed a degree of resilience; she liked to think she could see stories in their faces.

Communicating that should have been easy. I am, after all, not the straightest arrow in the quiver, myself. But for some reason I found it necessary to make her desires really, really clear, and my clumsy authorial attempt stood out like a raised thumbprint on the page. LOOK HERE SEE THIS SHE LIKES DUDES AND GALS LOOK LOOK.

The reality was, I was writing with a straight white male gaze in mind. I was writing with the idea that her desire was somehow other, something that had to be explained to a reader who viewed straight as default. By pointing so loudly at her desire, I was automatically flagging it as something out of the ordinary.

But I was writing about a world that viewed bisexual and lesbian women as default, and that needed to come across in everything I wrote – from the way people non-react (and, in truth, expect) that women are married to or have female lovers – to the way they talk about love and desire and sex.

I had to rebuild the default narrative of “assume everyone’s only attracted to people of the opposite biological sex” (and the assumption that intersex and trans folks don’t exist) from the ground up.
Obviously, that expected default is a lie. It’s always been a lie. But readers carry it. Writers carry it. Society carries it. Challenging it is a monumental task.

For starters, it meant rubbing out additional lines of narrative that told readers Nyx was bisexual, because to be honest, in this world there wasn’t really a box like that. If strong female desire, and strong desire for other women, was the norm, it wouldn’t need to be said.

Think of it this way. If I had a man looking at a woman in a story and thinking about how much he’d like to go to bed with her, I wouldn’t then say, “In Menscountry, it was natural for a man to desire a woman like this one. They may even go through a short courtship period leading to a monogamous marriage, a sort of commitment ceremony which often includes family and friends to witness the event.”

No. I’d just note the attraction. End of story.

The cool thing about narrative is that the longer you’re immersed in that narrative, the more normal it becomes for you as a writer (and, hopefully, as a reader). Because the society I’d built sent all its men off to war, the culture and its expectations had shifted. From a narrative standpoint, I wanted to build up a whole world where “woman” was default, and women have automatic privilege, but do it in a way that felt organic to the story, while at the same time deconstructing ideas around default sexuality.


   That Hurley gets this right attests to a serious and successful act of world-building (and an accompaning attention to detail). Indeed the world-building for most of the novel is convincing and effective. There are no horrible info dumps and you have to work hard, in a pleasurable way, to make sense of the world. In the latter third this breaks down a little as the narrative becomes a little clumsy, explaining plot details and motivations via characters thoughts. Indeed the writing is uneven throughout. It’s never clich├ęd but nor is it rarely more than competent; the gritty, hard-boiled style only occasionally bursts into life. In retrospect you remember that the greats of the hard-boiled style, say Chandler or Paretsky, always wrote in the first person. Hurley’s choice of the limited third person makes it harder for her to convey some of that noirish style and humour but, to be fair, she’s using the style to achieve some of the same effects of authors like George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Indeed a comparison with Abercrombie is actually quite useful. God’s War, more than anything else reminded me of The First Law trilogy. Like Abercrombie, Hurley makes you want to follow immoral, often detestable characters; you want to understand them, hope that they might do better but understand when they fail, pulled back into the hard choices, and chaos, of their inhospitable worlds. Abercrombie, in his use of the third person limited and in terms of nuance, subtlety and structure has got better and better with each subsequent novel and by all accounts Hurley’s style improves in the other sections of her trilogy. Crucially Abercrombie also failed somewhat in his portrayal of the Gurkish in those novels and I think this is where Hurley makes the most important mistakes.

   The planet of Umaya is dominated by two versions of Islam. The war it seems started over disagreements about scripture and faith and now Nasheen and Chenja have very different cultures. Nasheen, dominated by women is much more recognizably western in its attitudes toward religion. Thus its citizens can choose how and when to pray though many do not. Religion is still present in everyday rituals and ceremonies but it doesn’t dominate ideology or their way of life. Chenja is presented as much closer to twenty-first century conservative versions (and conceptions) of Islam. Thus men dominate and women are subservient; religion dominates ideologically and reaches into every area of life. Most of the novel is seen through Nyx’s eyes and occurs in Nasheen which means that in terms of the novel Nasheen is the norm. Hurley tries to complicate our perception by including Rhys, a Chenjan exile as the secondary character and by making him complex and sympathetic. Nonetheless he most definitely is a secondary voice in the hierarchy of voices that inhabit the novel. Unfortunately the effect is to ‘other’ Chenja and so reinforce Western stereotypes about Islam – more male ideologues who oppress women, whilst also reinforcing the current liberal promotion of atheism. Of course BOTH societies are seen to be oppressive and hypocritical but the text doesn’t work sufficiently to undermine or defamilarise the awful and hysterical anti-Muslim feeling that dominates much public discourse in the West.

   Like other commentators I also don’t think I really believe in the world Hurley has created. The idea of a world continually at war isn’t new. I remember loving Rogue Trooper in 2000AD where the Norts and Southers are in perpetual war but I didn’t really think about the consequences back then! It’s not just the logistics that I think unlikely – producing enough men for the battle, and, how on earth does Chenja manage to function at all (?), but it seems to me the fabric of society wouldn’t be able to survive. Without the bonds of love and affection that bind us I suspect society would break down into barbarism. It’s one of the interesting tensions in the novel that Hurley can’t control. Few characters seem to have long lasting relationships – trust, love and friendship are all too fragile. In the novel everything is forever breaking down. On a societal basis that would have had a cumulative effect long ago.

   Part of the joy of speculative fiction is to make you think and God’s War has certainly done that (and there’s more in the novel to think on and dissect than I’ve covered here). In that respect and in terms of its sexual politics it is successful. I think the Kitschies got it about right – it’s a good debut novel but it gets too much wrong to compete with Smythe and Priest on the two shortlists. I think I also enjoyed Ancillary Justice more. That said I liked the grit and the the grim of the novel, and I liked Nyx and her relationship with Rhys and the other members of her team. I’ll still be recommending it to friends and I already have a copy for the 6th form library. I'm looking forward to see what they’ll make of it.


Tuesday 1 April 2014

The Wall - William Sutcliffe

   William Sutcliffe’s The Wall was well reviewed on its release last spring and has now been shortlisted for the Carnegie Award. The novel is set in the fictional town of Amarias where checkpoints and a massive wall, “put up to stop the people who live on the other side setting off bombs”, separate Joshua, his family and community from that other part of town. The novel begins as Joshua climbs into a building site to retrieve his football. He finds a tunnel and, unable to curb his inquisitive nature, crawls in and through to the other side. He is almost immediately set upon by a group of boys and has to run for his life. He is then helped by a girl, similar in age, who shelters him and then leads him back to the tunnel. Thus begins a complex tale of personal and political discovery as Joshua confronts new, life-changing knowledge and the prejudice and ignorance that surround him.
The Wall by William Sutcliffe (eBook)
   Having just read two Frances Hardinge novels – probably my favourite YA author - back to back, I didn’t really think The Wall would be able to prolong my literary high, but (astonishingly) it has. The narrative is told in the first person present tense and skilfully bears witness to Joshua’s thoughtful and observant nature before erupting into tense passages of explosive action and dialogue. The language and figures of speech are just about perfect – clear, direct and calmly expressive.

   The author uses familiar tropes from children’s fiction – secret gardens, journeys into holes, through tunnels and over walls to reach a different reality - but these intimations of the fantastic, in Sutcliffe’s hands, work to defamilarise Amarias and its sister town behind the wall. When Joshua first confronts life on the other side of the wall he “can see that something is fundamentally different from what I’m used to . . . perhaps it’s the oddity of knowing that the freakishness of this place is only in my head, in its unfamiliarity to me”. The street he spies is “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing” and “the shops all spill out on to the street as if there’s no clear difference between inside and outside”. This whole passage where Joshua details and lists what he can see is characteristic of the novel as a whole – clear elegant prose that describes accurately but never tries to explain everything away or remove the mystery and freshness of Joshua’s experiences.

 Though Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories and ‘settlers’ are never named it will become clear to many readers that this indeed what the novel is about. That said, our first student to read the novel at school – a very clever and perceptive Year 8 – only realised this when she saw the notes at the end of the book. Thus for many young readers the text will clearly pass as a work of weird fiction and as a fable. Nonetheless other readers with a basic awareness of the debates about Israel and Palestine will appreciate the subtext whilst realising what an explosive topic the author has taken on. Anyone in the West vaguely wary or critical of Israeli polices is liable to labelled anti-Semitic and Sutcliffe has already suffered from this. For me this is easy to counter – you can quite clearly be an opponent of racism and fascism, standing side by side with Jewish people in any fight against oppression and hatred whilst still being severely, and loudly, critical of Zionism.

   The novel actually raises more interesting questions, about didacticism in YA literature and about the presence and utility of propaganda in art. The Wall is undoubtedly angry and partisan. You can’t read the novel without gaining insights into the zealous mind-set of the settlers and the severe brutality and injustice of the occupation. My normal reaction is that if you want to do politics, write a pamphlet not a novel. Yet for all that I think Sutcliffe somehow pulls it off, especially when he evokes the geography of separation and oppression. Nor does the novel ever lapse into sentimentality.  Joshua’s insights are hard won and cause much misery along the way yet the passages that describe his bid for redemption in the Olive Grove are beautiful and sensuous. The novel I want to compare it with, perhaps only tentatively, is Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator. It has same political underpinning, the same glimpses of the uncanny combined with a wonderful compassion and humanity. In its final pages The Wall captures the sadness and contradictions of Joshua’s situation as well as a final inspiring moment of resolve. The boundaries that separate and divide humanity are sometimes physical and imposing, sometimes invisible and ideological – Sutcliffe gives us a vital sense of their punishing, divisive complexity.

March Films

   A relatively poor month at the cinema marked by the films I desperately wanted to see but didn't get the chance to (because B'ham cinemas are shit etc, etc) - Suzanne, the re-release of Rome, Open City, The Invisible War, Queen and The Past.  Falph Riennes in Wes Anderson's great new film almost made up for it all but Rushmore is still the best.
   I've finally reached my century of Bollywood films and, though something of a guilty pleasure, I loved Rockstar. Mausam however is utter shite. Towards the end of the month I watched classics from Lubitsch and Ophuls that I hadn't seen for decades.

At the cinema
  • Highway
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • Under the Skin
On DVD/blu-ray
  • Outland (1981)

  • No One Killed Jessica (2011)
  • Chennai Express (2013)
  • Madras Cafe (2013)
  • Band Baaja Baaraat (2011)
  • Tanu Weds Manu (2009)
  • Love Aag Kal (2009)
  • Rockstar (2011)
  • Wake up Sid (2009)
  • Ram Leela (2013)
  • Mausam (2009)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • Event Horizon (1997)
  • Udaan (2010)
  • Blue Skies (1946)
  • A Damsel in Distress (1937)
  • Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
  • The Shop Around the Corner (1940)