Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

“The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings”

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

My Loncon schedule

Later this month, I’ll be attending Loncon 3, the World Science Fiction Convention, which runs from Thursday 14 to Monday 18 August. I’m scheduled to appear on three panels; here’s where you can catch me:

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Friday 15 August, 10.00-11.00
Don’t Tell Me What To Think: Ambiguity in SF and Fantasy

What does ambiguity (of setting, plot, identity, and so on) bring to a work of fantastic fiction? How is ambiguity created, and what effect does it have? Does it always work? Can a story be too ambiguous? The panel will discuss stories they have chosen, exploring exactly how they achieve their effects, and asking what divides a satisfyingly ambiguous story from an unsatisfying one.

The chosen stories are:

‘The Squirrel Cage’ by Thomas M. Disch (1966) [publication history]
Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ by M. John Harrison (1985) [publication history]

[EDIT: Thanks to Niall, I've added in links to the publication histories of the two stories that aren't available online, so you can track them down if you want to read along.]

Participants: David Hebblethwaite (moderator); Nina Allan; Scott Edelman; Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Ellen Klages

Saturday 16 August, 16.30-18.00
Bridging the Gap: Genre and the Mainstream

Iain Banks’ work was famously divided into ‘mainstream’ and science fiction, but this division wasn’t always applied consistently. For example, Transition was published in the UK as mainstream fiction, while in the US it was classed as science fiction, and Banks himself declared that it was ‘51% mainstream’. This sort of boundary blurring can be seen in both ‘slipstream’ texts and in mainsteam works that engage with science fiction. In this panel we will discuss writing that crosses boundaries – real or imagined – between science fiction and the mainstream. How has the divide been understood and characterised? How has this changed over time? Who is currently writing across this divide and to what effect?

Participants: Preston Grassman (moderator); Anne Charnock; David Hebblethwaite; E.J. Swift

Sunday 17 August, 19.00-20.00
Fandom at the Speed of Thought

The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desirable?

Participants: Chris Gerwel (moderator); David Hebblethwaite; Kevin McVeigh; Aishwarya Subramanian; Leticia Lara

 

Ivo Stourton, The Happier Dead (2014): Strange Horizons review

StourtonThis week, Strange Horizons published my review of Ivo Stourton’s new novel The Happier Dead. The book is framed as a murder mystery set in a near future where rejuvenation treatment is available to those who can afford it, and riot is fomenting among those who can’t. To go alongside the mystery, Stourton is also interested in exploring the ramifications of the rejuvenation treatment (and the mindset that created it) for his future society. In the end, this doesn’t quite all come together, but The Happier Dead does have its moments.

Click here to read my review in full.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Science fiction playing catch-up

I’ve been shadowing a lot of award lists lately: I’ve read through the longlists for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for fiction in translation) and Desmond Elliott Prize (debut novels), as well as the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (science fiction). Add in last year’s Man Booker (the ever-nebulous ‘literary’ fiction) and Edge Hill Prize (short story collections), and you have all my main reading interests. So I think all that reading has given me a reasonable cross-section of current UK publishing in the areas I care most about; and something bothers me – there are books on all of those lists that I like very much, and books on all of them that I don’t think deserved to be there; but, taking each one as a whole, the Clarke shortlist comes right at the bottom for me in terms of quality.

Science fiction and fantasy are where I started as a reader, and I still believe that the fantastic as a whole has a vital contribution to make to literature. So it gave me no pleasure to see the Clarke lagging behind those other awards; but it bore out a trend that I see elsewhere in my reading (most of which falls under one of the five awards’ headings) – on average, contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight. I’m reminded of a comment made by the science fiction author Tony Ballantyne in an interview that I came across when I was reviewing his novel Dream London:

I…think that the most exciting and cutting edge work in writing is being produced [in sf and fantasy]. If you look at mainstream literature, it’s about twenty years behind what we’re doing now.

I’m not convinced that this could even be true hypothetically, simply because the cutting edge is more likely to be found in pockets among various kinds of fiction, rather than in a single one. But behind Ballantyne’s remark is a firm belief that sf is leading the pack. I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, it was certainly keeping pace: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that sf is struggling to keep up.

It’s not that sf is lacking books at the top end of the scale; the likes of James Smythe can hold their own. It’s that, generally, it has fewer of them than the literary ‘mainstream’, and that the average seems to be lower down the scale. If I take writing quality (the backbone of any piece of fiction) as an example, even when I look at my least favourite titles from some of the award lists – such as D.W. Wilson’s Ballistics or Emma Donoghue’s Astray – they’re at worst OK; but, from the Clarke shortlist, there’s stuff in Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise that makes me cringe.

One area for which I’d expect sf (with its imagining different ways of being) to be a natural fit is engaging with textual form. Sometimes it still is, in the work of writers like Christopher Priest, but they seem few and far between these days. When I reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn earlier this year, I noted that there was a separation between its chapters that mirrored the novel’s fragmented setting, and that this stood out as an unusual engagement with form. The thing is that, in and of itself, it isn’t a particularly radical approach to novelistic form; but it still stood out to me as being relatively rare in genre science fiction. However, if I turn to the mainstream, and a novel like Nathan Filer’s Costa-winning The Shock of the Fall, I see a patchwork of different forms and styles integrated into a standard narrative, and it feels quite commonplace. In other words, I think there’s a level of experimentation with form in the mainstream that now seems unremarkable, which would seem remarkable in genre sf. Imagine what Nexus would be like if it were actually written as though its characters’ minds were linked; instead, it’s a pretty routine thriller – and this is something I see all too often in sf.

Predicting the future is not the business of sf, but it can engage with the future and explore the kinds of issues and choices that may face us. Even here, though, contemporary sf is hit and miss: James Smythe’s The Machine is (by some distance) the title on this year’s Clarke list that explores its issues the most searchingly, but it’s also the one published as mainstream. Niall Harrison has criticised The Disestablishment of Paradise for a lack of nuance in its treatment of ecological issues. When I watched ‘Be Right Back’ in the last series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, I was struck that a drama by a mainstream satirist was telling a robot story that examined issues of identity in a way that contemporary genre sf seemed largely to be shying away from. These are areas where sf truly can do better than the mainstream, and I only wish it would take up the challenge more often.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.

Reading round-up: mid May

Time for another look at some of the books I’ve been reading recently…

Andy MillerAndy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (2014)

With all the business of work and family, Andy Miller had read only one book for pleasure (The Da Vinci Code) in three years; then he found a second-hand copy of The Master and Margarita, and started reading:

…borne aloft on Bulgakov’s impassioned words, I felt the dizzying force of books again, lifting me off the 6.44, out of myself, away from Mrs Atrixo [a fellow-commuter of Miller’s who would manicure herself on the train] and her hands. How had I lived without this? (pp. 30-1)

Spurred on by that feeling, Miller made a list of fifty books he’d always meant to read (and that he’d told people he had read, when he hadn’t), and challenged himself to read them; The Year of Reading Dangerously is his account of that time. Some of the books he likes, some he doesn’t; but Miller is always entertaining when he writes about them, and there’s always a keen sense of how personal this reading is to him.

Reading this book reminded me of Eleanor Catton’s idea of literature as encounter, because that’s very much what Miller is describing here (indeed, he and Catton make some of the same points). This volume isn’t a list of ‘fifty books you must read’; it’s the story of one person rediscovering what he loves about books, and finding a place for them in his life. It’s an inspiring piece of work.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, and will be published in the US by Harper Perennial on 9 December.

Oscar Coop-Phane, Zenith Hotel (2012)
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (2014)

Now this is an example of how important social media can be for translated books and small publishers: Zenith Hotel (published by Arcadia Books) comes covered in quotes from bloggers, bookshops and other people on Twitter (it even bears the #translationthurs hashtag created by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog). And if all that praise wasn’t enough to raise a sense of expectation, there’s also the fact that Oscar Coop-Phane was only 24 when he won the French Prix de Flore for this, his first novel.

What we have in Zenith Hotel is a short (not even 100 pages) portrait of a day in the life of a prostitute named Nanou, and her clients. With great economy, Coop-Phane depicts a succession of men, each with their own individual situations and concerns; but makes clear that, when they go to their appointment at the Zenith Hotel, each man is no more (or less) significant than the rest. Tying the book together is the world-weary voice of Nanou, who refuses to tell us much about herself: the most important thing is what’s happening now, and what she needs to do to keep going. Ros Schwartz’s translation creates fine distinctions between these characters whom we glimpse briefly but clearly, underlining the subtlety of Coop-Phane’s work.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (2012)

This was a choice for my reading group, one I was looking forward to as my first experience of reading Dave Eggers. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – probably the kind borderline fabulism that (rightly or wrongly) I tend to associate with McSweeney’s – but it wasn’t what I got. A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged consultant who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of making the business deal that will turn his work and life around – if only the King would turn up so Alan can make his presentation.

I gather that this book is written in a plainer style than is usual for Eggers (the literary equivalent of an acoustic set, perhaps); I think the sparseness does have its moments, but not as many as I’d hope for. I appreciate the parallel Eggers creates between the difficulties of Alan’s personal life and the USA’s economic situation, but… A Hologram for the King just never really came to life for me. Still, I would like to try reading Eggers again one day; hopefully this title was just a blip.

A Hologram for the King is published in the UK by Penguin.

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

My reading group also recently started a science fiction offshoot, for which this was the first choice. I hadn’t come across book or author previously, though it’s a YA title that I would have been roughly the right age for at the time of publication, and it’s the sort of book I would have read. I think the teenage me would have liked The Giver very much; but the adult me still enjoyed it.

Lois Lowry starts by briskly outlining some of the contours of her fictional world. This is an enclosed community where everything is highly structured, even growing up: every year, there’s a ceremony at which children are given the appurtenances of the next phase of their lives; until they reach Twelve, when age no longer matters and they begin the ‘assignment’ which will occupy them for the rest of their lives. Relations between children and adults in the same family unit may seem oddly distant, and there are clear hints that some catastrophe happened in the past; but this society appears to work well enough. Our protagonist is Jonas, who at Twelve is sent to The Giver, an old man who will pass on the community’s memories – suffice to say, there’s a reason most people don’t remember them.

I liked The Giver for its crispness of telling, and its thoughtfulness on issues of individuality and conformity. There’s also a wonderful shift of perception halfway through which I was nowhere near predicting. I think the book is let down slightly by its ending, which is a little too abrupt – not so bad in the context of the four-book series which The Giver begins, but it leaves this volume feeling unbalanced on its own terms. My teenage self would have wanted to read on.

The Giver is published in the UK by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Anna Jaquiery, The Lying-Down Room (2014)

This is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Paris, written by French-born and Australia-resident Anna Jaquiery. Commandant Serge Morel investigates the grisly murder of an elderly woman, a case which will lead him into the past of Soviet Russia – all while his father is slowly succumbing to dementia, and there’s turbulence in his personal life. Jaquiery balances the different elements of her novel well, and the historical thread adds an interesting dimension. All in all, the Morel series is off to a good start with The Lying-Down Room.

The Lying-Down Room is published in the UK by Mantle.