Monday 12 December 2016

The (Un) examined Life - 5 things that I love.

I read Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos last week (for school) and it begins with the main character filling in a "5 things I love" assignment for her teacher. It felt like a good way to start reconnecting with a variety of things.

Science Fiction

   In my teens I would discover and seek out the great political films of 1970s but I started going to the cinema at that point where Hollywood was changing and blockbusters were becoming dominant. Some of my first memories are of going to see Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the Coalville Rex in 1977. I was 6. I can remember the excitement and the wonder: the destruction of Alderaan and the detention centre shootout; Richard Dreyfuss building his mashed potato mountain.
   A few months later I started watching Blake's 7 (it aired in January 1978) - I think we all watched it, me, my mum and my dad, which was unusual. It remains one of my favourite things in the world - brilliant characters and dialogue plus redemption and revolution. What's not to love? I also have vivid memories of the 1975/1976 season of Doctor Who especially Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion. SF is in my DNA. Other early memories include Star Trek on TV and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and and the Special Edition of Close Encounters in 1980. I can remember many other snippets of TV of course - great stuff like Space 1999 and curiosities like The Fantastic Journey - and more importantly, films like The Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. It seems to me now that though I remember fun and contentment in all of this there was also a large measure of melancholy and seriousness that I was attracted to as well.  My brother had the The War of the Worlds album and I remember Justin Hayward's Forever Autumn being played on Radio 2 continually in 1978 and loving its haunting, sombre tone.

   I grew up in a small mining village. Though we were poor my surroundings were enviable. Our house backed onto a hay field and around 500 metres away (maybe less - I was little!) was a large shed. This was, as far as I can remember, at the edge of the world. We - my friend Jason from two doors away, and Dawn from next door - had to be careful entering the field for fear of the grumpy farmer. Nor were we particularly brave I'm afraid - I was particularly obedient and timid. So was it a dream or maybe a late night looking up at the stars and seeing or hearing something unusual? But for a while I was scared of that barn because I thought aliens had landed and were hiding there. I remembered this much later when Helen and I fell in love with Farscape together. Watch the episode I, E.T. and you'll see why.

  My dad, who had been raised as a baptist, in a big family that was central to their chapel, was too troubled and questioning to accept religion. This hurt him a great deal but it also opened up his fascination for the world. He loved Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night (we didn't know about his appalling political beliefs back then!) and so we had books, binoculars and briefly, a small telescope. Throughout those years I can remember him trying to find meaning in ideas and things both sublime and wretched. The collection of pottery, which I'm sure the family couldn't afford, was a low point but astronomy was a great gift.

   I LOVED The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - the TV series in 1981. I got the novel for my birthday too. It was around this point I also discovered 2000AD. And I loved V in 1983 and '84. So much so that it is one of the only things I can remember with a degree of lucidity from those years. It was the mixture of revolution and Jane Badler. Politics, resistance and hormones. It probably filled in the gap left by Blakes 7. 

  From around '82 to '86 I can't remember much about anything. My mum left in 1982 and then most things are a blank - friends, teachers, experiences - I can't even remember what my school looked like. I've spent most of my life uninterested in my first twenty years - I just thought of it as a write-off. My memory feels like a piece of ancient alien technology - something I can barely get started and unreliable when I try to make it work. Since I started therapy little bits are starting to come back in dreams and I can recall some of the earlier moments with pleasure.

  But I don't know when I first saw Blade Runner or Alien, even if I suspect it was around then. 
   There are times when I feel pangs of envy and regret about this. This is the point when my favourite writers were discovering Tarkovsky and Le Guin, Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Algis Budrys and the Strugatsky brothers. I was watching Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and working my way through every single Agatha Christie. That does sound bitter doesn't it? Now that I'm trying to remember and understand my past I'm trying to acknowledge those feelings but I can't stand the idea of feeling sorry for myself. And anyway, I've discovered so much in the last 20 years.

   I think it was the summer of '83 when I went to stay with my favourite aunt and uncle whilst my dad went to hospital.  It's my only sustained memory of those years, perhaps because I was so happy. My (older) cousins were kind and I got to spend days doing what I wanted in a completely different sort of atmosphere. For about a week I watched Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon every day. Rebellion and hormones again! But this time with Queen and Ornella Muti. What a brilliant, crazy, perfect film it is.

Helen loved science fiction too.


I was 9 or 10 when I had to have a minor operation. On the way back from the hospital we got caught in a terrific snow storm. Our house was set back slightly with a drive that led to a small row of our houses - 6 or 7 semi-detached. We travelled home safely but it was impossible to get up the drive. I remember various people coming out to dig the snow whilst I waited in the car. Did my dad carry me in the end or did we get the car up to our house? All I remember is a sense of drama and the sky full of beautiful snow. 

    I lay on the settee for a number of days recovering. My uncle bought me a Blake's 7 annual. Maybe this was also the point I fell in love with winter sports - David Vine on Ski Sunday. I rediscovered this love with Helen and it became even more important when she became ill and we needed easy ways to spend our time. We began to watch Cross Country Skiing and, especially, Biathlon on Eurosport. We fell for Ole Einar Bjørndalen and the German women's team.

   Most children got the Beano or the Dandy but I loved The Beezer. It was an A3 size - double the size of other comics - and felt just a little more sophisticated because of it. Pretentiousness and cultural snobbery from an early age - that's me. But what I remember, especially about the winter editions and the annuals, is the snow. It felt, perhaps, like it was part of an anticipation - of a white Christmas, days off from school, snowmen and so on. But even then I can remember being on my own in the snow far more than being with others. And the thrill of watching the snow fall through a window. Part of me thinks it's awful that I was already full of a kind of nostalgia and false thinking. But perhaps that's being a little too hard on myself.

   The year after Helen died I hired a car and went to the Lake District. I stayed in Keswick. It was SO cold. Frost lingered throughout the day. I made it almost to the the top of Skidaw and then found myself in a blizzard. I carried on to the top even though I couldn't see anything. I passed a couple of men and a dog though they seemed like ghosts. But seeing them made me feel safer. The next day I walked the Dale Head horseshoe. The mist and cloud were terrific but then suddenly the clouds lifted and I was able to see everything. Just a couple of weeks ago I was reminded of ghosts again when I rewatched Edge of Darkness. I love how Bob Peck is able to see and talk to Joanne Whalley. 

I can't deny that there is a hint of romanticism to this snow malarkey. It's connected to a longing for family, for hunkering down in the winter and for Christmas happiness. I was bought up on that heady, nostalgic mixture of Christmas songs, Christmas movies, singing carols and the importance and excitement of Christmas at chapel.
I remember loving Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys on TV and feeling the ache of loss as the Christmas holiday drew to a close and I was I unable to watch the last episodes on morning TV. And then the joy of two snow days because of freezing temperatures and frozen pipes at school. I can remember both the feeling of melancholy and a kind of sombre happiness.

Why can I remember walking through Coalville on a frosty December night listening to Erasure's The Circus on my Sony Walkman in 1987? I have no idea. I was lonely, definitely, but maybe just beginning to find a small measure of existential pleasure in that alone-ness. A budding flaneur perhaps. I think I felt a sense of possibility, even if it was really a dead end or an illusion. I suspect it was simply about adjusting - learning to find a way of living that provided a good defence against the sadness and the anger and that provided a modicum of pleasure.  Of course it wasn't really possible to be a flaneur in Coalville anyway. Fucking awful place.

I can remember our back garden and the field behind it on Christmas Day. A snowy picture post card. I can remember playing football with Jason on the front in the snow too - there was an area of grass, with a rose bed in the centre, that lay parallel with the drive. That's where we played football until we were old enough to go to the park. He was Arsenal, I was Nottingham Forest. We loved Ron Atkinson's West Brom too with Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson. Even Match of the Day was better with snow.

2 snowy walks with my dad: first to the Video shop in Thringstone and another to the fish and chip shop in Whitwick, walking back and eating our chips on the way. Salt, then vinegar and a shake to wash the some of the salt down the bag, then more salt. Undoubtedly high blood pressure will be my undoing. But that video shop, and the videos we bought home, was one of my great pleasures. Django, Harry Tracey and many more. I've written about it before. There's a film I've been trying to remember for decades - snow, an apocalypse perhaps. I thought I'd discovered it when I found Altman's Quintet but it doesn't match up with my memories. I wish I knew what it was.

Helen and I went to Saltzburg the weekend before Christmas. It snowed most of the weekend starting on the Saturday afternoon when we visited the castle. In the morning we had been up to the top of the Untersberg mountain in the cable car. The blizzard at the top was a bit like the one I would encounter on Skidaw years later. We only spent a minute or two outside because it was so cold. I look at the photos of that holiday and remember how happy and content we were. We were happy and content pretty much all of the time. 

   This love goes all the way down.  
In movies: Fargo, The Grey, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Empire Strikes Back, Gorky Park, Groundhog Day, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), Where Eagles Dare, It's a Wonderful Life, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Sweet Hereafter, Let the Right One In, Marketa Lazarova, My Winnipeg, A Simple Plan, Little Women, (the Winona Ryder version), Winter Sleep, Winter Light, Breakheart Pass, Harry Tracey, Desperado, The Great Silence. 
And books: The Shining, Misery, The Left Hand of Darkness, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. 
And TV: Frozen Planet, Northern Exposure, a favourite episode of Blakes 7 and even winter episodes of ER. And now the snowy bits of Game of Thrones. 
I could go on.

   And at what point did I fall for Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago? This is another early memory so I assume I was 6 or 7. It's a an incredibly flawed movie of course but when I first saw it I was just floored by the heavenliness of Christie and the melancholy and romance of the snow. Those scenes in the abandoned dacha! Perhaps this is emblematic of my fascination - it's such an idealised depiction of Russia. Romanticism and sadness. Beauty and the blues.

   Helen and I spent most of our Christmas's together alone. A real tree, new decorations each year, opening presents together, movies, Doctor Who, cooking, Cava. It's no wonder I find it hard to adjust.

   Now, snow seems like a miraculous dream and a dreadful nightmare. I've never known so many homeless people on our streets, or such poverty - in one of the richest countries in the world - so a cold winter means that many people will die. And yet, as climate change accelerates and the dangers grow, the snow feels like the greatest blessing. A symbol of hope. The task for 2017? To see with clarity but not give in to despair - to find the strength to do some good in the face of all the horror. 

Music (and Dance)

I'm kind of superficial. No, really. Because I love Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, classical music, jazz, world music and much more, people assume a certain sophistication in my tastes. But really I just love a good tune. I love pop music. In fact I'd go as far as saying there's nothing as good as a great pop tune - but for me that often means any old shite. It's also untrue. I could start the sentence 'There's nothing as good as....' in a awful lot of different ways. Does that me fickle or full of joy for all the great things in life? Trust me, it's both.

Fickle AND superficial.

I find it amazing that that I can put songs on playlists because I like the tune but at a later date find myself smiling or crying because of the words. It's like I've suddenly tuned in - sometimes just a line, sometimes a chorus, sometimes a whole song - and realised what my subconscious was trying to say all along. Perhaps I'm overplaying this a little - pop songs are often incredibly superficial - universal, inane, cliched, imprecise - and so can easily fit any mood or feeling. But listen to Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. When I put it as the first track on a playlist my friend told me how brave I was. I had no idea what she was talking about  - it was 2 or 3 years since Helen had died - so I went away to listen. Holy fuck. It's how I felt all the time. And this happens A LOT. For someone who thought he possessed a reasonable amount of self-knowledge it seems I am a mystery to myself much more often than not.

With music comes dancing. Not for everyone I realise, but definitely for me. In a different life I would have been a dancer. Expressing myself via the magic of dance. I love the sensuality of dancing. I love the goosebumps you get. I love being transported to a different place. I'm a reasonable dancer, but, for whatever reason, it has never translated into successfully meeting women at clubs - I've been approached by more men than women on the dance floor. Moreover I think I must look uninterested in others when I dance - apart from the odd smile when I look up - I'm too caught up in living and feeling the music. 

   There was a radio in every room all tuned to Radio 2. My dad had a huge collection of records too. I still love songs from the fifties, sixties and seventies. And not the 'cool' stuff either! My brother played Queen, Genesis and and various shades of 70s soft rock. Those album covers. Most uncool too right? But he was also a drummer and used to sneak out to play in a punk band. 

   My dad loved Glen Campbell and Neil Diamond. I can sing all their songs. 

   At Helen's funeral we started off with the overture from Fidelio playing really loud. Next we had Otis Redding's version of A Change is Gonna Come and then a section of Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. To finish we played Elbow's One Day Like This. 

    Two of the best nights of my life. Fidelio at the Vienna Opera House in 2006 and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells in 2008. We saw the Swan Lake when Helen was getting better and we were cautiously optimistic.

   No one that I knew listened to classical music so I don't know how I discovered it. I think it was because I found Ode to Joy and loved Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in Out of Africa. So in my mid teens I started to buy tapes - Beethoven's Ninth, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Elgar's Cello Concerto - things I'd probably heard in films or on TV.  Somehow during my late teens I discovered Brahms too. Yet I didn't go to a concert until we came back to Birmingham in 2004. I can't remember what we saw at Symphony Hall that first time but I've been hooked ever since. Helen often came with me and came to love it too. It's the closest I get to ecstasy I think. It can often be overwhelming - crying so hard that I feel everyone around me must be seeing or sensing the emotion. Helen would hold my hand as I shook.

   Musicals were the other big thing in our house. I must have watched most of the old musicals in my formative years and we regularly went to see local amateur productions too. In those lost years - 1982 to 1986 - I would have discovered - via Radio 2 and my dad- the original cast recordings of Chess and Les Miserables and played them constantly. When I listened to them this week I reconnected - for the first time I think - with how I felt back then. How can I Dreamed a Dream and Nobody's Side be a 13-year-olds favourite songs?

   There's still nothing quite like a good singsong to a playlist of songs from the musicals. And I wonder why people think I'm gay!

   I loved The Kids from Fame. I bought the albums, played the songs daily. When Fame (1980) and later Flashdance (1983) were released with 15 certificates and I was thus unable to see them at the cinema, I was angry, exasperated and forlorn.

We danced on the night we met. We danced in London most weekends.


Sorry this is a bit Thomas Hardy isn't it? But my ten years with Helen were my happiest by a country mile. By many, many miles. By light years. 

My heart would race when I was journeying home after a day at work or college in anticipation of seeing her. This happened week in, week out over our ten years.

Perhaps you'll think I'm looking back with rose-coloured glasses. So many of my memories are imperfect or hazy - partially constructed. But I'm not trying to convince you of anything. This is for me. I know how lucky I was.

   I'm envious of those people who know how to be happy single. I know lots of ways to spend time on my own. And I'm good at it - I certainly enjoy all kinds of pleasures and satisfactions but now I'm starting to wonder if I've been happy at all since Helen died. It's the push and pull of loneliness that I find hardest to understand. Desperate for connection but doubtful and slow to accept it when others reach out to me. Proud, stubborn and scared of the unknown?

   I'm an atheist and always will be but for the first two years, every night when I got into bed I would ask her to come and take me. Actually most of those nights I would wail and plead.

   For all kinds of reasons Helen's death is now incredibly raw. 2015 and 2016 were tough. It's fair to say that world events and the hopelessness of the left have compounded my personal difficulties. I feel a despair that I've never felt before. Everything is NOT going to be alright Mark Kermode. It may be that I've never come to terms with her death. I felt her strength for years - the fact of our time together and our love for each other filled me up with belief and confidence. I think I need to find a way to mourn her properly. Our friend Louise was the only person still in my life that knew Helen well and talked about her - not that we did it very often - it's almost like I didn't have a vocabulary for it. And I'm sure she sensed my discomfort - of raw emotion a heartbeat away.

It's finally time for me to grieve and remember.

Fifth and final.

The last one is hard - not because I don't love lots of things - Bollywood, mountains, rivers, the sea, Birmingham, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, wine, and a hundred other things - I do. And that I've included films and books into everything above testifies to their importance. The trouble is......that if you don't get to share all the brilliant things in life with other people you become in danger of missing their grace, detail and lustre. And that's where I'm at. So my final thing that I love - and by no means the least - has been meeting all the amazing girls at school. They've made me laugh and smile, asked me difficult questions, wound me up, challenged me, given me hope. Without them these last 6 years would have been unbearable.

2016 has been pretty awful for many of us. And as August slid into September, for the first time ever, I fell apart a little - for all kinds of reasons.  I suddenly started having very vivid flashbacks to Helen's death and I found it very difficult to see a future - either for myself or for humanity. I've started going to therapy and I've realised that I'm going to have to come to terms with my past if I want to go forward.

I should say too, that I've done some brilliant things in 2016 - it hasn't been a complete disaster. I met some amazing people in Greece. Holly made me laugh a lot. I went to see Grimes, Rihanna and Beyoncé in the space of a fortnight. I was given the great gift of becoming a trainee zookeeper for half a day. I read some fantastic books. And Liz has provided me with space and companionship when I threatened to sink. I DO count my blessings all the time.

I don't know whether this is all too personal to be a help to anybody else. Hopefully not.

Here's to 2017. Let's hope we find the strength, solidarity and a way of seeing and analysing that helps us fight back

Monday 15 August 2016

The Lonely City - Olivia Laing

I'd already read Olivia Laing's To The River this year and loved it. Now I've finally got round to reading The Lonely City. Laing blends her own experiences with a wonderful mix of sensitive, humane criticism and theoretical and historical research. The result is passionate and compelling. The passages that are sober or upsetting are offset with sections that are uplifting and beautiful. The book achieves a number of things. Laing discusses loneliness in all its facets, it's causes and effects without ever simplifying. The book is also about the essential strangeness of people and their unknowability. That might sound trite for those of us brought up in the era of postmodernism and post structuralism but don't be fooled. I'm fairly sensitive to people's moods and their ways of being and surviving (and thriving) but by looking at figures like Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and others she shows us how different we all are and that empathy, effort and sensitivity can only take us so far. Or perhaps that a greater effort is required than one could easily imagine. My need for intimacy might be a suffocating death grip to you; my sensitivity might be a horrible invasion of privacy for you; my silence might be a deafening roar to you; my insouciance might annoy the fuck out of you. And so on. 

   Her readings and insights about paintings and art are careful, subtle and fascinating. It's like going to the best exhibition ever and getting insights into art that you never imagined. If you're anything like me it will open up a new world and send you off to the Internet to discover more.  Her portraits of artists and the dispossessed growing up on the margins, often in unbearable circumstances are deeply sympathetic and there are an abundance of images and ideas to pause over and contemplate. The chapter on David Wojnarowicz is worth your money all on its own. There's a fantastic chapter too discussing social media and it's possible alienating effects, "as our ability to socialise withers and atrophies". (227) But it's just a great book, chapter after chapter, inviting you into lives you might never have known about and artworks that you'll probably become desperate to experience. It's one of those rare books that opens up your life in new and unexpected ways, just as it asks you, not that I need a great deal of bidding, to look in the mirror. It's also moral and political, tender and compassionate, forever making connections, forever returning the discussion back to fairness and equality, race and gender, sexuality and class; always asking you to understand and empathise. Readers, it is fucking tremendous. One of the books of the year, along with Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Lavie Tidhar's Central Station.

   I couldn't decide how personal to make this but I'm not sure that many people that know me think of me as lonely so maybe if it helps someone else to read this book or to feel a little better hopefully it's worthwhile: loneliness isn't the same as depression or anxiety and you can feel it even when surrounded by colleagues, loved ones or strangers. I've been lucky of course: I was in a wonderful, loving relationship for ten years; being an activist gave me a sense of purpose and allowed me to express my solidarity with others and I have, and have had, some amazing friends. But the loneliness and disconnection has been with me from a young age. [I won't bother you with the details of my upbringing - and it certainly wasn't horrendous in the way that others have to face] I learned early to do things by myself. Books, films and TV were my companions and continue to be. Yet even though I like my own company for the most part I'm forever searching. Out, reading in cafes, walking, often feeling that there is some kind of invisible, impenetrable barrier around me that people can't or won't penetrate - possibly trying to fight against this:
"It was becoming increasingly easy to see how people ended up vanishing in cities, disappearing in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of sadness and shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into the world. I was getting a taste of it, all right, but what on earth would it be like to live the whole of your life like this, occupying the blind spot in other people’s existences, their noisy intimacies?" (136)

   At one point Laing quotes Wojnarowicz writing about himself: "‘David has a problem,’ he wrote bitterly in his journal, ‘he feels pain being alone but can’t stand most people. How the fuck do you solve that?’". It's not that I can't stand most people - and I suspect I speak for a lot of lonely people - but I have less and less time for inane chat or egos and when I see others slide easily into friendships and relationships I'm utterly confounded by my own inability to do the same. Perhaps I'm my own worst enemy.  And of course in connecting myself with Wojnarowicz's bitterness I worry that it contains a kind of disdain. And I hate that I might feel disdain for my fellow human beings. Tories and the rich excluded of course. 

   Reading the book now has come at just the right time. I began the summer reeling, in shock. Two weeks of almost constant nausea and anxiety. This is unlike me. There were various reasons - my midlife, existential crisis; a mountain of issues that had been building up and on top of that, difficulties - a crisis point really - with a very important relationship. So it is no surprise that my loneliness issues feel more pressing than ever. Need and longing cause you to ignore obvious doubts and fears. On top of that I felt unlovable, unwanted, unattractive and that I was going to be lost and alone forever. I wondered how well I was really understanding the world. And I realised that I'd undoubtedly caused someone that I love considerable pain by just not comprehending how mindbendingly different and alien we humans are. And there was the blast of fear too - of further loneliness, of more longing and searching, of feeling that invisible barrier that surrounds me becoming less porous, more unrelenting. And the knowledge that I wasn't on solid ground, or worse that I was falling from a great height desperately trying to grasp hold of something solid. Laing understands this loneliness, disconnection and lack of meaning completely: "the terror of solitude without prospect of cure, loneliness without the hope of alleviation or redemption." (251) 

   I've gone through my life my life trying not to imagine what others think of me. It always felt like a waste of time. And a way to drive yourself crazy. It didn't matter. I was OK, I was me. But suddenly I'm asking myself 'What signals do I send off? What is wrong? Do I give off some aura of neediness, or longing, or condescension? Maybe a new aspect of loneliness I hadn't experienced before.

Laing gets it all: "another aspect of loneliness: its endless agonising hope. Loneliness as a desire for closeness, for joining up, joining in, joining together, for gathering what has otherwise been sundered, abandoned, broken or left in isolation. Loneliness as a longing for integration, for a sense of feeling whole." (262) Most of my life I've gone out into the world with hope, sometimes pausing to think about that quote attributed to Einstein "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results' and trying to fight against it.  I've tried many things - plenty of things - dance classes, singing lessons, dating sites - but still feeling awkward or disconnected, hopeless at initiating relationships, never knowing how to break through. But I suppose hope, even in its folly, is better than despair.

Elsewhere, she writes about the need for sensation. Again, it's something many lonely people will understand all too well - anything to fill the gap: booze, drugs, the epiphanies and exultation of classical music or film.

There are so many passages I'd like to quote, especially perhaps the last page but it won't mean the same unless you read it as a conclusion to the whole book. Instead I'll finish with two passages about empowerment, creativity and fighting back, lest you think The Lonely City is a difficult or depressing text:

"Wojnarowicz articulated a sense of being not just outside society, but actively antagonistic to its strictures, its intolerance of different life-forms. ‘The pre-invented world’, he’d started calling it, the pre-invented existence of mainstream experience, which seems benign, even banal, its walls almost invisible until you are crushed against them. All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being. The best way he’d found to fight was to make public the truths of his own life, to create work that resisted invisibility and silence; the loneliness that comes from having your existence denied, from being written out of history, which after all belongs to the normal and not to the stigmatised." 

And this:

"Years before, David used to buy grass seed from a store on Canal Street and roam the piers scattering it in handfuls, Johnny Appleseed in sneakers, wanting to make something beautiful from the rubble. My favourite picture of him showed him lounging on a meadow he’d planted in one of the abandoned baggage or departure halls: grass scattered with debris, grass growing out of disintegrating plaster and particles of soil. Anonymous art, unsignable art, art that was about transformation, about alchemising what was otherwise only waste." 

Brilliant. The Lonely City is a work of solidarity and compassion. I urge you to read it.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

The Clarke shortlist 2016 - Part 2 (Okorafor, Tchaikovsky & Hutchinson)


   There are times when all manner of THINGS feel pointless and even a little macabre. I feel this a lot at the moment especially in the light of the UK's referendum result: as racists and fascists become emboldened and as millions fear for their futures; as the Labour right capitulates to that rightward momentum rather than back Corbyn and some principled politics; as refugees are ignored and ostracised; as Trump lies and breeds hatred. Hell, it would be a very long list if I carried on. So this review doesn't feel like a very important thing right now. That said the three books speak to me a little nonetheless. Dave Hutchinson's book is about Europe, nations, imperialism and much more. His trilogy feels more timely than ever. Adrian Tchaikovsky's novel of wonder ends with a heartfelt plea for empathy and understanding. We need those simple things more than ever right now. And though I can't connect to Okorafor's novel as others have I suspect it will make many readers feel represented and give voice to their anger and pain.

Part 2

  As I thought of how to introduce these reviews I realised my responses to books come in three main categories (though of course it is more of a spectrum): 1) the first is a kind of excited puppy response as in 'Holy Crapola Batman' that is SO good. It's kind of like a phwoah! Most of those books have STUFF - usually a mixture of content, form, style, tone that I might find difficult to parse but are, at the same time, deeply pleasurable. I'd characterise these texts as having an overabundance perhaps: they are complex and they are plentiful. That said, every now and then my excited puppy response comes from a text that is modest but perfectly achieved: that's great too. I don't want to harp on about my preferred list but all of those texts fit in to this wow category.

   Next come the books that I think I understand fairly well on a first reading and that I can admire but wish for a little more. Or rather, more often than not, a little less: a little less obviousness, a little less direction, a little less repetition of the stuff that I need to remember, a little less telling; and often these days a few less pages too.

   The third category encompasses the texts that are bad, mediocre or dull, that are obviously reactionary, that perhaps desperately want to teach me something (I usually already know). They are not all terrible but if vaguely enjoyable then instantly forgettable. I've got to the stage where thankfully I don't have to read too much of the this category: I'm discerning, I've been reading a long time and I have little patience!
   If the first three texts fit too easily in to that third category - and sorry I don't mean to be unkind or dismissive - then the other three are a little harder to pin down. First and foremost I'm glad I read them. You'll find I'm still grumpy about The Book of Phoenix but in many respects it feels like the YA text that the judges seemed to want and at least it has the merits of a crazy kind of energy and righteous politics. I wonder too if Okorofor just isn't for me. I admire Binti but didn't really get on with Lagoon either.  I have however found a lot to admire about the novels by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Dave Hutchinson. 

As with Part 1 I will assume you've read the books.

The Book of Phoenix

   So, I'm not usually shy about criticising books and films but on this occasion I am, a little. Various people whose opinions I respect like this book a LOT - see From couch to moon and Ana at The Book Smugglers for example. I spent an hour reading the overwhelmingly positive set of reviews on Goodreads too to see if I could identify what I was missing. I understand and appreciate many of the sentiments I found but still feel like I was reading a different book.

   These are some of the words I found when I looked back through my notes attached to various passages and paragraphs: guileless, rough-hewn, wholesome, juvenile, outlandish, overwrought, weirdly formal, stilted, raw, angry, righteous, histrionic, dull, crude, portentous. Not good really!  Most of those feelings and descriptions related to style. This, for instance is just pure melodrama: “No! Get out of my HOUSE!” he screamed. “You’ve taken enough from me! You will NEVER have her.” Tears flew from his eyes, spittle from his lips. He turned to me, his eye twitching and blazing with warrior’s blood and rage. “I won’t let them take you, Okore.” (81) And this, repetitive and awkward: "This gentle, powerful man who’d understood matter so profoundly that it allowed him to pass through it. How could they kill him? Why?" (214). Elsewhere Phoenix's assertions just come across as bombastic and unnecessary: "I could have resisted Sarah. I was certainly stronger than she. But in me, no matter how hopeless I feel, is the instinct to survive" (76) and on the same page: "The smell of exhaust filled the car. I hated that smell. It was the smell of self-inflicted death." Perhaps some of this naivety and unevenness is meant to give voice to the discrepancies in Phoenix's age but if so then it was a misjudgement. 

   And plot wise it's a bit messy and episodic. The worst section is the middle when Phoenix, Saeed and Mmuo are in New York and in the Library of Congress - it's oddly dull and awkward. There are sentences like this: "My eyes were watering from the stress of what I’d just read about Mmuo. Had they really peeled away all of his already special skin, injected it with some sort of sentient molecular shifting compound and then grafted it back on?" (141) Straight out of the comic book of nonsense methinks. Furthermore, for large sections of the novel its heroes are virtually omnipotent so that plot contrivances can be explained away with some new power or other - a situation I find a complete bore. I'm fine without plot but if it is vaguely irrelevant for your purposes then there must be a more elegant way to negotiate it than this. 

   But now take a look at Brit Mandelo's review for Tor because she sees a book I would love to read: an urgent, political novel that avoids becoming a tract. Yet for me the novel often felt unsophisticated and obvious, like being smashed and thrown around by the Hulk. The Book of Phoenix has lots to say about contemporary geopolitics, global capital and the state of the world, the unbridled greed and inhumanity of corporate capitalism, the intersections of racism and sexism with inequality and class tensions, the catastrophic consequences waiting around the corner unless a fight back begins. Can or should we have all these elements in a novel? Of course!! But don't they require estranging metaphors, subtlety, symbolism that seeps down deep into the unconscious and won't let go.... or else, all too easily, they can end up as simplistic and pious - or else, you only succeed in preaching to the converted. And unfortunately the novel's answer is the same one given by numerous superhero narratives since their inception: Phoenix, taking on the role of villain must obliterate everything so that humanity might start again. That it is an African woman doing this, and that Okorafor is being somewhat playful, doesn't take away from the fact that revolution is figured as destruction, that it can only be implemented by powerful individuals and that it is seemingly everyone's responsibility that the world is in such a terrible state. Perhaps for some this will be read as a cry of pain and revolt for large sections of the world that aren't given a voice and whose history is forgotten or rewritten. Perhaps others will accept that Phoenix is the consequence rather than the cause, that her character literalises Armageddon and the hope of renewal.  But I can't accept that. To me her actions signify nihilism, moralism and a bourgeois outlook. It's too attached to the ideology of despair and a contempt for any kind of complex solution. God, why can't people get organised in one of these texts, smash the bastards and forge something new? Has all that anti-communist propaganda seeped so far into the American psyche that it can only see and imagine so narrowly? It reminds me of similar concerns and feelings when I finished The Fifth Season though I loved Jemisin's novel. Furthermore the elements of fable and the text's understanding of myths and the stories we believe about ourselves just don't offset its comic book simplicity. 

   And yet The Book of Phoenix is such an odd book. And odd is usually a good thing: The X-Files meets X Men or in this case African X Woman. I applaud Okorafor's desire to give a powerful voice to an African woman and I think the better moments are when she writes about the history of slavery and colonialism, and the exploitation of Africa - it's people, it's resources and its culture. And there's certainly energy here, and creativity, and a kind of power - a righteous anger that I could get behind at times. When Phoenix reports on Seven's murder and the destruction of the Backbone it speaks directly to the schizoid, and very dangerous, nature of our times: "Why hadn’t any of those people considered the damage such a huge thing would inflict when it fell? This was fear. And guilt. This was people scratching at their flesh to excise a demon so deep within that it was beyond their grasp." (196). That one passage almost makes it all worthwhile. It manages to be moving too especially when Phoenix visits her mother. 

   Even if I'm not sure the text earns those moments of grace. 

   One of the other things I often liked was how visual it was: "Thick vines and even tree roots quickly crept, stretched and blocked the elevator door. Leaves, branches and stems grew so thick around the guards to my right that they were blocked from view." (26). Many sections like this would work wonderfully well imagined as a comic or graphic novel. I suspect it would suit the declamatory tone too.

   There are also some reasonable meta moments: “The beginning and the end always matter.” (176) and the framing devices succeed in complicating the text a little. But do they make The Book of Phoenix a pleasing puzzle - a slidey, slippery thing to resist the reader? Does the mischievousness invocation of Roland Barthes work? The answer for me, as with so much of the text is not really. It's not earned. There are too many points where Phoenix is telling me what to think and feel. It often feels far too literal.  

  Other readers are obviously seeing something profoundly different in Okorafor's prose and storytelling style. Perhaps I just can't get along with her sensibility? It's a book I didn't enjoy very much but it's unusual and ambitious. I can see why someone would want to reread it and discuss it. 

Children of Time

   Children of Time is I suppose quite a traditional SF text - a novel of wonder and ideas that nods and winks to lots of other bits of SF knocking around in my brain. There was little that annoyed me and much that I enjoyed. Tchaikovsky shows a great deal of skill and ingenuity in holding the two strands of his narrative together. If someone were trying to write SF I suspect they could revisit this novel again and again to learn how to write about complex ideas with clarity and simplicity. 

   Just a few thoughts then. First there are some GREAT images and scenes in this novel. The human left to live on the spider's world as an exhibit, a zoo animal. Done in just a few paragraphs but long lasting in the desolate impression it leaves. The oddly moving scene when Fabian sacrifices himself to save Portia in the Space Nest (487). Holsten's moving, frantic speech when he has been woken up yet again: "‘What is it about us that we cannot live together in this fucking eggshell ship without tearing at each other? That we have to try and control one another and lie to one another and hurt one another? Who are you that you’re telling me where I have to be and what to do? What are you doing to the poor Gilgamesh? Where did all you freaks come from?'" (439) Just a little bit Planet of the Apes I thought. Also there are some lovely, elegant passages in the spider sections where genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology are questioned quite effectively (see 361 for example). Always a good thing!

- Another book about the catastrophic future of humans? Is there any other way of imagining at the moment? Can there be, should there be more? Don't know, but I think of this book sitting happily beside Aurora and Clade this year - there's space for all three. 
- The dominance of the females in the spider society is used to draw out the obvious inequality of our own sexual relations. Good, but does the metaphor help us to understand inequality and oppression with greater depth or profundity? Probably not, but if these points are somewhat obvious and didactic they are earnest and well done nonetheless. 
- Just as Holsten bemoans their efforts as too closely tied to the mistakes and evolution of the Old Empire - Homo sapiens and our forbears - then does Tchaikovsky sometimes veer too close to the formulaic as he imagines the evolution of the spiders? In my most cynical moments I couldn't help but think of the stages of Sid Meier's Civilisation game at certain points - rather than their historical counterpoints - as the spiders seemed to go through quite distinct phases. But there are also playful and ironic notes to it all. The text wears its understanding and knowledge lightly and for the most part I really enjoyed these sections. So no massive doubts and the horrible, cynical side of the Beniston brain was silenced fairly easily.
   Children of Time is not always subtle but is skilfully achieved. It is plaintive, deeply humane and often ambitious. Tchaikovsky could have misjudged so much but again and again he gets it right. Just consider the fantastic moment when Karst and his crew begin to fight the spiders on the hull of the ship. Briefly you are excited and complicit in wanting to shoot those horrible alien things - you can happily have your "game over man, game over" moment. But then you are forced to admire the ingenuity of the 'alien' and to see from their point of view - it is genuinely thrilling. 

   This novel fits into my "modest but perfectly executed" category. My friend was disappointed with the ending. I think he wanted Tchaikovsky to follow through on the dark heart of his story - of humans unable to do anything other than destroy themselves and others but, even if a little cliched, I loved it. It's the book, along with Ancilary Justice, I'll be recommending to SF newbies for quite a while I suspect. 

Europe at Midnight

    I wrote about Hutchinson's excellent novel at length earlier in the year. It's a bit messy and as with most things I write here, it would have benefitted from a little more time and care but I stand by both the praise and the criticism. In addition I would recommend Helen Marshall's excellent review in the LARB. 

The winner

   I'll be in Greece volunteering in a refugee camp when the winner is announced and hopefully full to the brim with more important things. That said if Smythe, Pears or Chambers win I will probably spontaneously combust through anger and, unfortunately, a measure of contempt. In this 30th anniversary the judges had the opportunity to do so much more - to reward all kinds of skill, ambition and exuberance or to do something completely different - perhaps a list of all women. Readers hoping to experience the best of what SF has to offer has been ill-served by this shortlist yet I'm fairly sure anyone will find enough complexity, to enjoy, admire and discuss, in the novels by Okorafor, Tchaikovsky and Hutchinson. For what it's worth I think Hutchinson should win.

   In what I can only think of as a weird kind of revenge I'm rereading Alexis Wright's astonishing The Swan Book. It's making my head fizz, soar and crack. Phwoah!

Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Clarke shortlist 2016 - Part 1 (Pears, Chambers & Smythe)

So it seems I can split the Clarke shortlist into 4 sections - a) can't be arsed b) mediocre if I'm being kind c) quite good really d) very good.

Here, briefly, I'll concern myself with a) and b) and I'll assume that you've either read the books or can get a quick précis of the plots online. 

And yes, this is a long way from a proper infinity plus/Strange Horizons roundup. I just can't be arsed when there is a lifetime of great books still to read. 

a) Arcadia - read 80 odd pages (out of 736!!!!!!) That's plenty. Life is too short. Don't care. Feels a bit like Harkaway without the skill, the crazy, complex ideas or the politics. And that's being kind.

b) Way Down Dark and A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Normally I would have read these and thought 'pacy YA' and 'Firefly fun' and bought copies for the library. Then I would have happily encouraged the girls to read them, swallowed down my reservations and forgotten them in a heartbeat. But no, someone somehow thought they were good enough for the Clarke shortlist - I would simply ask.... 
Why on Earth would anyone want to reread them? What riches do they hold? 
Because there are no riches here.  
And bear in mind that I wanted Smythe to win in 2014 - or to share with Priest - and I was more than happy to believe Chambers deserved her place on the Kitschies Golden Tentacle shortlist. 

Way Down Dark

So, action films are really hard to pull off right? Certainly if you're in any way discerning. The first Die Hard, Aliens, The Long Kiss Goodnight, the Bourne trilogy, Pitch Black, the latest Mad Max are my favourites. Way Down Dark is an action novel, turned all the way up to 11. Relentless action and not much pausing for thought. Nonstop action and lots of violence. So much action! So much violence! I like violence - especially in films - but here it gets a little monotonous. And btw I don't want to suggest that any of those films are without flaws - there's a lot of silly movie violence where it seems that characters are impossible to kill, dubious plots and so on. It's just that they are two hours long and make my heart beat a little faster. Smythe's writing certainly serves the need for pace and erm, action. And I appreciate that is a great skill. I do. I was relatively content on my first swift read through. But otherwise move along - there is nothing to see. Or enjoy. It doesn't have the visceral thrill or the beauty or the characterisation of those films - few books do - so without anything in the form, structure or writing to return to it's repeat value is nil.

   That said Smythe's novel deserves credit for its cast of uncompromising female characters. I think the 14-year-old me would have enjoyed the righteous asskicking, and exciting, second half. Moreover even if there's nothing great about it - I've read it twice and the second time felt like a complete waste of time - there are nonetheless a couple of interesting things worth talking about. There is something of a taunt I think in its mix of Mad Max and Ellen Ripley and especially in its portrayal of the villains of piece - the Lows and their reversion to a chaotic band of grunting Neanderthals over the course of a generation or three. Most of all that taunt is in thinking about how close to savagery and anarchy we humans are. And what are the fine lines in behaviour and morality that separate out the 'just about OK' individuals from the ones that have gone too far and are irredeemable. The trouble is that most of these debates are framed around fatuous distinctions and dichotomies.  Agatha's use of torture goes unquestioned. Will Chan kill or not? Yawn....she'll maim, disfigure, shock and leave people to die but can't quite bring herself to do it in cold blood. It's the old 'some violence is necessary, (especially to make this book exciting) but there are limits don't you know'. Many YA novels are well above this kind of fantastical delusion.

    Moreover the text makes very little sense. When the novel begins there is a status quo of sorts with half of the ship 'free' but the novel doesn't give the reader a sense of how that has been achieved. There is evidence perhaps of a slow decay and of stories and rituals that reinforce the power of certain individuals and groups. But what is the ideology that glues the 'free' half of the ship together? How are the balance of forces maintained? Without any kind of organisation or law or the self interest and organisation built around commerce and expansion? How on earth is there enough to eat for heaven's sake? 

   And the trouble is, all of this has implications for the figuring of humanity. Even the 'free' people are a bunch of selfish cowards or potential rapists in Way Down Dark. In a crowd they cheer when a trader is beaten and thrown to his death. Fine, if you want to discuss the ability of humans to revert to barbarity let's have context, social forces and ideology because the inability or refusal to give those details means the text just becomes a reactionary tract that crystallises silly notions about human nature. People are awful. Blah, blah, blah, tell me another one. Unless, miraculously you're Chan and you have a conscience. Despite the fact that we are told she is not special. A lot. 
   And let's not fool ourselves, this bunch would have died out decades ago.

And then there are nuggets like this: "Our stories are something we make for ourselves, not something we’re born into" (Ch 10, loc 3121) Chan assures us, which speaks to the other side of liberal ideology I guess - tokenistic idealism over materialism any day. 

During the last big fight in Chapter 11 Smythe tries to make it all a little more discursive and problematic but just succeeds in making the text even more annoying, offensive and hypocritical: 
"Jonah is watching, waiting for me; and so is Mae. I can’t let her see me kill Rex. I need her to believe that life isn’t just death and revenge. I would let Rex go, but I can’t. The war would end another way if I did. She’s ceaseless, and she’s had too many chances. I have to end it, I know that, but it doesn’t mean I want Mae to see it."
And: "‘No,’ I say. ‘You’re already done.’ She is in so much pain. She’s devastated, ruined. I do not need to lower myself to murder. Agatha was right, in the end. You can make your own story. And this is my story. You can be better than them."
Arrggghhhhhhhh!!!!! Laughable, bizarre and dishonest. If only it were ironic. Nothing in Smythe's work so far  - I've read all but one - had led me to believe he could get it so wrong. Hopefully this is a one-off. 

The cynic in me can only wonder if the Clarkemind wanted a YA novel on the shortlist to broaden its appeal. If that is the case then either The Death House or Railhead could have offered some grace, gravitas and imagination. 

A Long Way to A Small Angry Planet

519 pages.
I gave the reread a half-hearted try but I just can't bring myself to read it again.
My memory (and a little skim) is that there is far less to criticise than there is in Smythe's novel. And that it was kinda fun at various points. That's it. 
If anyone can convince me I missed out on some profundity then I'll contemplate the full-monty reread.

Next time....I promise to be slightly less grumpy about two of the other novels (and repost my discussion of the one that should win).

Wednesday 8 June 2016

A bit more Clarke and some recommendations

Not much depth here I'm afraid. Busy!

Clarke Award

First, I've managed to read a few more of the books on the Clarke submission list. 

First up I reread Ancillary Justice and then read Sword and Mercy. I enjoyed them a lot. They are intelligent, fun and satisfying. 

Throughout The Watchmaker of Filigree Street my evil fairy companion sat on my shoulder whispering "stop now, it's NOT worth it". I didn't listen because there are some things Natasha Pulley does really well. She is concise and evocative in her scene setting and there are passages in the first half that are particularly good at making you think about space, time and perception. However, much of that good work is wasted and the last third annoyed me a great deal - not just because the last chapters have to explain so much - please don't explain to me!!!!! - but because the novel wastes it's poetic and metaphorical potential (especially the synesthesia) and can't do anything interesting with all its STUFF - especially terrorism and imperialism. And the things she does with one of her main characters, Grace - especially in making her so inexplicably mean and stupid, is bizarre. 

Quite a lot better is Al Robertson's Crashing Heaven. I read this on the basis of Christina Scholz's review at Strange Horizons and because Robertson seems such an interesting bloke. Well worth a look if not as good as I was hoping for.

I love Philip Reeve's books. Railhead isn't quite Reeve at his best but since he and Frances Hardinge can write the socks of just about everyone else writing YA it doesn't matter. Very good.

Nothing to vaguely challenge any of the fantastic books on my list.

I still plan to finish reading the shortlisted books but I can't whip up any enthusiasm at the minute. However check out Everything is Nice for more forthright discussions about the future of the prize.  Martin is also compiling reviews of the shortlisted books here


I also made a decision to try and read a bit more fantasy this year. This is in response to my dissatisfaction with two widely admired novels, Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown and Aliette de Bodard's House of Shattered Wings. I should say that I read both novels with a degree of pleasure and I'm recommending Cho to all the girls at school. [it's a girls school!] However de Bodard's novel in particular felt like a text that wanted to tell me about imperialism and ruling class duplicity rather than a novel that wanted to tell me an interesting story first and foremost. It's BSFA win baffles me. I appreciate that the skill of creating subtle and suggestive metaphors and juxtapositions must be exceedingly difficult and hard won. I appreciate too, obviously, I hope, that both writers are trying to give voice to characters and histories that have been much neglected in fantasy and sf. Unfortunately I'm comparing and contrasting with writers like Nalo Hopkinson and Helen Oyeyemi who are doing it in much more interesting ways (see below) rather than the generic mass market crap that fills the Waterstones fantasy shelves. Anyways, hopefully this will be one project that I can come back to again and again this year in an attempt to analyse how texts as rich and disturbing as Viriconium work. Yeah, sorry, the benchmark IS high.

I began with Richard Morgan's A Land Fit for Heroes trilogy. I've still got The Dark Defiles to read, hopefully in the next week or two, but it is fascinating and often brilliant so far. More soon.

And yes, I am slowly making my way through the new collections by Oyeyemi (What is not yours is not yours) and Hopkinson (Falling in Love with Hominids) and finding them hugely rewarding. 

Great books

Before I launch into an excited torrent of 'you must read this' I have one slight disappointment to report. I admired Sarah Perry's singular and weird After Me Comes the Flood last year and so my expectations were high for The Essex Serpent. There ARE lots of things to admire about it and much is staying with me: the sense of place, the evocative and poetic writing about nature, certain scenes and images, plus I think you cannot help but discern Perry's wisdom and kindness. But it didn't work in other ways, perhaps most of all because the tone didn't feel right. It felt too light for its darker themes and metaphors to live vividly. I felt the presence of some of the great nineteenth century writers, especially Dickens but couldn't feel their weight. Nor did it achieve either the great storytelling of Sarah Waters or the meditative density of say, Woolf. I feel kind of guilty for feeling this way, so much so that if reviews and criticism emerge that convince me I'm wrong I'll happily reread.


The Vegetarian - Han Kang. All the hype is fully deserved. 

Mend the Living -  Maylis de Kerangal. Intense and euphoric. I'd go as far as astonishing. Take a look at Mike Harrison's review here

The Beauty and, even better, The Arrival of Missives - Aliya Whiteley. I'm giving these to EVERYONE!!!

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar. My thoughts here. Novel of the Year.

The Emigrants - W G Sebald. Even trying to avoid hyperbole......this is one of the best books I've ever read. I can't remember any text - fiction or non-fiction - that has brought the past to life so vividly, that has made me want to read so slowly so as not to miss a single detail, idea or thought - even knowing that I'll have to reread again and again to even glimpse some of the subtlety and craft at work. 'Sublime' is the only word that fits. Now 2016 will be the year of Sebald as this is the first I've read and I mean to read them all, greedily.

Elsewhere on the interweb:

  • Really enjoying Jonathan McCalmont's discussions of the short story collection Sisters of the Revolution.
  • Discovered From couch to moon and Gautam Bhatia's blog.
  • Practically Marzipan is always good.
  • I love following what Ana reads here.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

   When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. But his vast, extended family continues to pull him back home.

   Boris’s ex-lover Miriam is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin Isobel is infatuated with a robotnik—a cyborg ex-Israeli soldier who might well be begging for parts. Even his old flame, Carmel—a hunted data-vampire—has followed him back to a planet where she is forbidden to return.

   Rising above all is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness— are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

   I admired Osama and The Violent Century a great deal and I loved A Man Lies Dreaming but Central Station is a novel to fall in love with. Tidhar, it goes without saying now, is a fantastic writer and his new book is a rare and glorious thing, full of sublime ideas and beautiful, evocative prose:

"Boris Chong, who had once been beautiful, when she was beautiful, in the soft nights of spring long ago as they lay on top of the old building filled with domestic workers for the rich of the North, they had made themselves a nest there, between the solar panels and the wind traps, a little haven made of old discarded sofas and an awning of colourful calico from India with political slogans on it in a language neither of them spoke. They had lain there, and gloried in their naked bodies up on the roof, in spring, when the air was warm and scented with the lilacs and the bushes of jasmine down below, late-blooming jasmine, that released its smell at night, under the stars and the lights of the space port." (P7)

   The story of Central Station "that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv" and a community of characters that live and work within and outside it is full of longing and sensuality, smells and sounds, textures and tastes. It's a novel set in an extraordinary, mind blowing, far future about ordinary people trying to live their lives with dignity.

   As often with sf I'm not entirely confident of my intertextual imaginings as my sf reading is so patchy* but I couldn't help but think of various other writers. Tidhar's novel is weird and wonderful in the manner of Philip K Dick and Cordwainer Smith; it is generous, calm, intense, elegant and dreamy especially in the way Tidhar connects his short stories into an organic whole, Martian Chronicles stylee. I kept thinking of Mike Harrison's Light too - in the ease with which the novel introduces difficult and surreal concepts and ideas but also because, as Robert MacFarlane has written "His [Harrison's] books gleam with the lustre of found beauty and brief happiness: moments of being that exceed the claims of market forces. This aspect of his work is, I think, what led Michael Moorcock memorably to christen him "an anarchist aesthete". There are no candy cane epiphanies or take-home morals – just occasional light-flares from unexpected sources and surges of sensation that might make existence worth enduring." Don't misunderstand this comparison - Central Station is very different too, most surely in its hopefulness and the hues of romanticism that colour it. Finally the novel put me, happily, in 2000AD space - that space that first fully engaged me in sf - all that detail, a tone carefully and knowingly constructed, all those ideas, many of them inspired by 60s and 70s sf, and a pulp sensibility, less present than in the other novels, but still there in the ether. 

   In previous novels Tidhar has used metafictional devices to investigate and complicate history and politics. That self reflexive impulse is still present in the new novel - a central character is a bookseller fascinated by genre and storytelling, and make sure you remember the prologue - but it's less central to the structure and has a gentler purpose. Otherwise there is much in the form and structure to appreciate and linger over: the use of those evocative lists and careful juxtapositions, an intriguing narrative voice, plenty of jokes and references to ALL kinds of stuff (Star Trek Voyager and Peter Davison era Doctor Who.....well, maybe I was imagining some of them!), plus a singular pleasure and play in language and style.

   One of my complaints this year, against even the better fantasy and sf texts is that they're so caught up in ruling class intrigue. Sure it can be a useful lens through which to examine power, greed and imperialism but part of me finds it increasingly difficult to connect with those stories any more. One of the delights of Central Station is that it successfully interrogates the legacies of war and imperialism, of poverty and immigration, of belonging and identity but does so with a cast of characters who exist on the margins but are still fundamental to the fabric of life: shop keepers, children, priests, workers, refugees, forgotten soldiers, beggars, lovers, romantics. In large part the novel is a testament to family and community, steadfastness and determination:

"Oz meant “strength,” in Hebrew. But the real strength, Miriam thought, wasn’t in intimidating helpless people, who had nowhere else to turn. It was in surviving, the way her parents had, the way she had—learning Hebrew, working, making a small, quiet life as past turned to present and present to future, until one day there was only her, still living here, in Central Station." (P19)

   So yes the lives that Tidhar gives us here may still be precarious and prey to larger forces in society but there is satisfaction to be had in the shapes and stories of everyday life, in the surprise and ardour of loving, in friendship.

   Central Station is a rich, complex and satisfying work of art. It manages to be spectacularly lyrical (I was going to write 'literary' but stopped myself) and spectacularly sfnal too. I'm not sure it has ploughed down into my unconscious like a Harrison text or as novels by Robson and Fagan have this year but I realise that doesn't matter. It's more of an aesthetic pleasure - the pleasure of language and ideas, of cerebral oohs and aahs and of wonder. It is metaphorically rich in its thinking about the relationship of places and spaces to time, memory and history. It is meditative and kind. It is daring and full of grace.

   It is a novel to fall in love with.

[Hold on though, isn't there a but? There's always a but....

Well the conversation I've been having with myself, in my gloomy, 'how on earth is humanity going to last another 100 years' and 'how the hell is there ever going to be peace in the Middle East' way is about whether Central Station is just too hopeful and unrealistic. On one level it IS fascinating that my pessimism about Palestine/Israel and my rage at the increasing barbarity (and stupidity) of Zionism impacts on my ability to accept sf tropes. Anyway, thankfully I've been able to tell that part of me to shut up and stop being stupid. Perhaps of all regions on this planet the Middle East deserves a little hope. And it certainly deserves this novel. 

That winning side of me remembered too that I have a treasured CD/DVD of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra with Daniel Baranboim playing Tchaikovsky's Fifth that I haven't watched for a while. Maybe I'll watch it again tonight again, for the umpteenth time, and let that hope breath a bit longer.]

*So, after I wrote this I couldn't resist a bit of detective work. First there's this lovely article at Tor about influences, a good interview here and a small paragraph on Lavie's blog here. I shall be reading Miguel Street and C L Moore asap. 

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Shortlist discussions - Clarke, Kitschies and more.

The Discussion

There’s the beginnings of a discussion about the future of the Clarke Award with excellent posts by Nina Allan here, Jonathan McCalmont here and Martin Petto here and here. [I'd definitely endorse Niall Harrison’s all-female lists and David Hebblethwaite's comment]. The posts and the comments discuss the difficulties of judging and scheduling, hopes and ideas about how to keep the award relevant, interesting and vital plus hopes and ideas about how to broaden the discussion around the Clarke and Kitchies shortlists. If you haven’t read them already I’d urge you to asap!

Nick Hubble also posted a link to Allan’s essay on FB (posted, 29th April on Contemporary British Fiction if you want to find it) and provides a useful reminder of “the dangers inherent to valuing the ‘literary’”, aware as he is about “how literary valuation and canons are complicit with hierarchical power relations across English studies as a discipline”. He also stresses that there are different ways of being ambitious and gives as an example Dave Huchinson’s fantastic Europe at Midnight. This is obviously important in any discussion opposing ‘literary sf’ with the ‘genre heartlands’.

The Kitschies

Part of me has little to add to what has already been written. The Kitschies, for all the brilliant books it has brought to my attention over the last few years, will become irrelevant to readers if it can’t adopt a decent structure and a clear timetable and forum for debate. I hope it does because there desperately needs to be a space for critical debate about literary speculative fiction.  But I won’t support it next year unless there is sufficient time to read the books and we get some kind of platform for discussion. Otherwise, Jonathan’s assessment seems depressingly spot on:

“If you want to know the future of the Clarke Award look no further than the Kitschies as they seem to provide publishing professionals with everything they could possibly want from an award: Winners announced two weeks after the publication of the shortlists in order to maximise free PR and a drinks party serving the second or third least expensive wine on the list. Tentacle headgear is optional, no riffraff.

The Clarke

If the Clarke award is slowly taking a journey to the genre heartlands then it will simply become far less relevant to me. I’d like to be able to say that this is fine. I didn’t find my love of books in fantasy or sf. I found it in horror and thrillers, and later in my teen years, in ‘literary fiction’. Sf didn’t come until much later – first with Banks and Le Guin in my 20s and then, increasingly, with my discovery of Mike Harrison and China Mieville (and their lists). I’ll still be able to identify the books I want to read because I’ve built up a large store of knowledge and because I’ll continue to look to Strange Horizons, Nina Allan and various others for recommendations. And I still read more literary fiction over the course of the year even if I’m drawn most to that which messes and plays with genre boundaries.

However, a lot of that knowledge was acquired by reading the critical debate over the Clarke shortlists by Nussbaum, Roberts, Hartland and others (see Martin’s post above) over the years and by going back and reading many of the novels. Indeed many of those novels mean a lot to me. I already miss that debate somewhat but since it depends on a great deal of good will and intelligence I’m not confident it will be forthcoming. Furthermore shortlists that are fun and conservative, as opposed to difficult, provocative and challenging are likely to inspire less debate and less critical insight too.

Thus, for what it is worth, I clearly don’t want the Clarke to retreat to the genre heartlands. One look at my Clarke shortlist this year will show that I clearly favour ‘literary sf’. I can just about accept that The Shore and The Swan Book are too leftfield for the Clarkes but that Glorious Angels, The Thing Itself and Aurora aren’t on the shortlist is well, unforgivable? Preposterous? Inane? I’ll wait until I’ve finished all the novels until I give a full account. So far, Hutchinson deserves its place, the others really, really don’t.

   Of course, however objective one likes to think oneself, looking back through shortlists and their winners is highly instructive and of course should give anybody pause to question their certainties. Frances Hardinge, Adam Roberts and Claire North – 3 of my favourite authors - were judges for the 2014 Kitschies, but did I agree with their winners? Hell no, but that was fine because the shortlists were fantastic. I love the 2007 Clarke shortlist but Martin (see above) is less inspired. And then there is Naam and Mann in 2014???? And how did Richard Flannagan beat Ali Smith in the 2014 Booker (or even Fowler or Mukherjee)? I could go on and on. And this year’s Bailey’s shortlist is a stinker….

So, honestly, I don’t expect perfection, and I don’t expect to agree wholeheartedly. That would be ridiculously dull and conservative of me. Indeed I want to have my certainties challenged, my horizons stretched and my mind blown. Is that too much to ask?

Paraphrasing Jonathan’s last paragraph a little, I will continue to seek out, appreciate and praise criticism that is willing to rock the boat and ask awkward questions. Moreover I want art to push me and perplex me. I’ve never understood those people who tell me art is just for fun or consolation and here I’ll quote Jeanette Winterson:

Art cannot be tamed, although our responses to it can be, and in relation to The Canon our responses are conditioned from the moment we start school. The freshness which the everyday man or woman pride themselves upon; the untaught "I know what I like" approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture.                                                   

  The media ransacks the arts, in its images, in its advertisements, in its copy, in its jingles, in its little tunes and journalist's jargon, it continually offers up faint shadows of the form and invention of real music, real paintings, real words. All of us are subject to this bombardment, which both deadens our sensibilities and makes us fear what is not instant, approachable, consumable. The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of  imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art. Is it so unreasonable to expect a percentage of that from us in return? [Art Objects]