Tagscience fiction

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Perhaps the single best-known short story that would have been eligible for this year’s award, purely on account of its being the title story of a collection by such a high-profile author (oh, and perhaps the storm-in-a-teacup that went on in the media over the subject matter, I suppose). Mantel imagines the occasion in August 1983 when Margaret Thatcher went into hospital in Windsor for eye surgery. Her narrator lives within sight of the hospital, and receives a visitor who is at first assumed to be a photographer – though it soon becomes apparent that he’s after a different kind of shot.

It’s been a recurring theme of my engagement with the shortlisted stories that I’ve found the tone of the narration a little jarring (at least to begin with) in the context of what the stories were doing. It’s the same here: Mantel’s protagonist looks back on these events calmly, with a certain sense of being above it all (“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees…”). This seems to work as something of a wink to the reader: you know that Thatcher wasn’t assassinated in real life, but this is fiction, so all bets are off, okay? But I also find that it takes me out of the moment a little. All the same, the interplay between narrator and (would-be?) sniper brings humour, then tension.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

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Adam Roberts, Saint Rebor (2014)

SaintStrange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.

Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.

This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.

I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)

So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories  and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.

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Sara Taylor, The Shore (2015): Shiny New Books review

ShoreThere’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and it includes my review of The Shore, the debut novel by Sara Taylor. The Shore is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and focuses on the members of two families over a span of 350 years (reaching into both the past and future). The chapters are arranged non-chronologically, meaning that the reader has gradually to piece together the complex picture of family secrets that emerges.

You can read my review in full here.

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A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into winners’ but then loses her attraction to them; or Mr Opportunity, who knocks on doors but is rarely answered). The rest of the book has the same charming mixture of the quirkily fantastical and a heart of everyday (but is it really?) emotion.

George Szirtes, Uncle Zoltán: fragments (2014)

This pamphlet from the Belgium-based publisher MIEL is a collection of bon mots from the titular Uncle Zoltán; these are by turns whimsical, fantastical, and absurd. For example:

We had a tiled stove with wings. Occasionally it would squwak and hover a foot or so off the ground, said Uncle Zoltán.

Always pack three umbrellas, one for heavy rain, one for light rain, and one for no rain, said Uncle Zoltán. A dry umbrella is consoling.

So many of these delightful snippets send the imagination off into a sideways world where all the strangeness makes sense; one also starts to imagine what kind of character Uncle Zoltán might be, built up indirectly from the fragments of reported speech. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, because Uncle Zoltán is very much a book that lives in the reading.


Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990)

Newly reissued by And Other Stories as an attractive little hardback, this is a poem: a dialogue between an angel and an accountant, which evokes the push and pull of the mundane and the transcendent, the heat of desire and a quieter contentment. Rather like Uncle Zoltán, Levy’s book encourages you to focus in on the language (and even, in this case, the arrangement of words on the page). AS much as I enjoyed it, though, I find it difficult to separate out a quote from An Amorous Discourse. Here’s a video (hosted by the Irish Times) of Levy reading from it instead

WhiteleyAliya Whiteley, The Beauty (2014)

Aliya Whiteley can usually be relied upon for engaging stories with a dark twist, and The Beauty (published by Unsung Stories) is no exception. It focuses on a group of men living in a time when the female population has died out (the cause is unspecified) and the details of geography and history have become hazy; the Group relies on its storyteller Nate to retain the memory of what matters. One day, strange fungus begins to appear on the graves of the Group’s women, growing into silent, faceless female figures dubbed ‘the Beauty.’ What follows is a story that leaves the reader’s thoughts and sympathies in flux – on the one hand, there’s the moral issue of how the men treat the Beauty; on the other is the question of whether the Beauty themselves are benign. The vagueness of time and place, and the starkness of the Group’s world, only add to that sense of uncertainty.


Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2002)

I got a very enthusiastic reaction on Twitter when I mentioned that I had this lined up to read; though I perhaps wouldn’t quite go that far myself, it’s certainly very good. Train Dreams moves back and forth through the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer born in 1889 who would go on to witness enormous change in the twentieth century. Johnson evokes the raw nature of life and landscape in Grainier’s American West; and includes memorable glimpses of others’ personal tragedies, such as that of Kootenai Bob, the old Native American who got drunk for the first (and last) time, then went to lie down on the rail track. The fragmented structure of Train Dreams serves to underline the essential; nature of Grainier’s life: unstable but enduring, haunted by the past but always with a future around the corner, for good or ill.

BarkerA,L. Barker, Lost Journey (1992)

This is one of four ghost stories which have been published in new individual editions by Galley Beggar Press. I have to admit that I’d never heard of A.L. Barker prior to reading Lost Journey, but this story was such fun that I’ll have to seek out more of her work. Barker’s narrator spots two striking figures in the street: an old woman with no legs, who travels around in an orange box on wheels; and her beautiful companion, who pushes her. Led by his libido, the narrator falls in with them; the old woman, Gerda Charles, turns out to be four hundred years old, and searching for a way to die. There’s a wry glee to this story; much of its energy comes from watching the narrator being strung along by forces outside his control, and seeing just where he’ll end up.


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Alex Dally MacFarlane (ed.), Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) – Vector review

The following review appears in Vector issue 277 (Autumn 2014).

AliensAs Alex Dally MacFarlane notes in her introduction to this anthology, the concept of extra-terrestrial life raises questions which have been a perennial source of fascination for writers: “What will we encounter? Will we be able to encounter it at all?” And, of course, since alien life remains undiscovered, it becomes a blank canvas that writers can fill however they wish. In Aliens: Recent Encounters, MacFarlane has assembled thirty-two recent tales (the earliest are from 2002) which take a variety of approaches to the subject.

In ‘Sun Dogs‘, Brooke Bolander imagines Laika on her involuntary mission in space, where she meets some strange fiery dog-creatures who can give her whatever she wants, which the humans (whom Laika calls “whitecoats”) never could or would. ‘Sun Dogs’ is very much a story that stands or falls on its ability to create and sustain a convincing narrative viewpoint for Laika. Happily, it succeeds: Bolander’s third-person narration is a combination of persuasively non-human terminology and perception (“The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals”), and detail that emphasises instinct and feeling. The ending, too, is satisfying, because in retrospect it fits right in.

The Four Generations of Chang E‘ by Zen Cho is a drily humorous tale of diaspora experience. We begin as Chang E has won a lottery to leave Earth for the moon, which has been colonised by aliens. We then follow three successive generations of her daughters (also named Chang E) as they react to, and are changed by, the world in which they find themselves: from wanting to fit in with the Moonites, through to a point where Earth is itself an alien place. There are some sharp lines, especially around attitudes to the native moon rabbits, which are discovered to be sentient (“The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.”); but the complex emotions of the ending are perhaps most powerful of all.

Interestingly inverting the idea of encounter, Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Carthago Delenda Est‘ is set four hundred years after a message was picked up from a planet in the Oort cloud, which caused any number of worlds to send delegations. The ambassadors have been cloned and reincarnated ever since, waiting for the unknown alien to show up. There’s a nicely wry tone to Valentine’s writing (on the number of delegates: “You wonder how amazing the message must be, to get them all up off their asses”), which fits in with the rather absurd nature of what she’s depicting: a whole existence created, entire lives lived, for an event that might never happen.

Though some reach into the depths of space, other stories in the anthology remain earthbound. For example, ‘Lambing Season‘ by Molly Gloss is a resolutely – almost stiflingly – down-to-earth tale of encounter. Delia spends six months of the year tending her flock of sheep on the mountain, with only her two dogs for company. This year, a strange craft falls from the sky; Delia investigates, and comes across a person who looks rather like a dog. Then she goes back to her sheep. Gloss’s prose evokes the vastness of the landscape that Delia inhabits, and the hard nature of her farming life; the focus on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary gives ‘Lambing Season’ a highly distinctive feel.

Courtney, the narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Death of Terrestrial Radio’ grew up feeling estranged from other people, but with a yearning to talk to aliens. Eventually, they talked to us – or rather they transmitted a jumble of old Earth broadcasts back at us. Courtney is the astronomer who pinpointed the source of the ‘Echoes’, but it’s not so much a cause for celebration as for rueing the impossible distances that must be crossed in the universe. She reflects: “I can’t decide if knowing they were out there and that they reached out in friendship with a map and the sound of their voices, is worse than imagining they were never there at all.” All the vistas of space fall back into the story of a woman facing up to the possibility that her life’s work may have been for nothing.

There’s a bitter irony to the title of Nisi Shawl’s ‘Honorary Earthling‘, an irony which is only underlined by its inclusion in an alien-themed anthology. The story takes the form of monologues by various African American characters, who are all either talking to – or are themselves – a figure from urban legend, such as a phantom hitchhiker or doppelganger; these are then paired with related extracts of ‘found’ reportage. As a whole, these monologues show just how much their narrators – and others like them – still feel that they’re treated as outsiders (“Aren’t we lucky Seattle lets dogs ride the bus? I don’t think they’d understand if someone were to tell them they couldn’t”). Besides being a fine piece of work, ‘Honorary Earthling’ illustrates just how widely this anthology ranges.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species‘ is, as its title suggests, a tour how various alien races pass on their knowledge to each other. There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery here, as Liu imagines radically contrasting modes of existence: from mechanical creatures whose experience becomes etched into their stone brains by shifting channels of water, to beings of energy who see the vast structures of the universe as books to be read. That diversity of life is echoed in all the different kinds of stories in MacFarlane’s anthology.

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The Race and The Notebook

Nina Allan, The Race (2014)

AllanNina Allan is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers; but, as her collections often take on interesting larger shapes, I’ve often wondered what a novel by her would be like. Well, now here’s The Race, and it may just be the best thing Allan has written yet.

We begin in the company of Jenna, who lives in Sapphire, a small southern English town whose main (and pretty much sole) reason for existence is the racing of genetically-enhanced ‘smartdogs’. Jenna makes gloves for the smartdogs’ human runners, which is one of the few bright spots in her life. And her brother Del is pinning his hopes on one last smartdog race, which may yet steer his life in a better direction.

There are some indications that this isn’t the future of our world, but essentially The Race seems fairly straightforward – until we reach the second part and meet Christy, who certainly lives in a recognisable contemporary England, and is the ‘author’ of what we’ve just been reading. Christy has a dodgy brother named Derek, and the temptation is right there to map her life on to Jenna’s, even though it doesn’t quite fit. A third part jumps forward twenty years to a lover of Derek’s partner, and challenges key assumptions from Christy’s narrative. The fourth and final part returns to Jenna’s world, and Del’s grown-up daughter Maree, who was kidnapped as a child… but all may not be as it seems.

The Race is a novel of thwarted lives and limiting horizons: chances are missed, landscapes are washed out, knowledge is incomplete. This is also reflected in the book’s structure and language: its individual parts are integral to each other, yet don’t quite cohere. And rarely come across a novel so finely calibrated to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose: when Maree’s section includes place names like ‘Thalia’ and ‘Crimond’, their effect is very precisely estranging – just as the world seems to be opening up, so it fades back into obscurity. The Race may end in incompleteness, but its sense lingers on.

Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)

KristofTwin brothers are sent from the Big Town to the Little Town to live with their grandmother. With the local school closed, they teach themselves at home: having been given a title, one of the boys will write an account of something that happened to them; the other will check it with a dictionary, and determine whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’. The criteria for doing this seem simple enough: “the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do” (p. 27).

Of course, it’s not that simple; and the reason is right there in that quotation: everything we read is mediated through the boys’ viewpoint – and it’s a viewpoint that distorts a world we may otherwise expect to recognise. The boys eschew words that describe feelings, dismissing them as too vague. They even eschew feelings, undertaking a series of exercises to harden themselves, leading to escalating acts of cruelty – all told in the twins’ direct, matter-of-fact tone. Never again will I use an expression like ‘spare prose’ without thinking; the writing in The Notebook is so austere that it hurts.

Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who became an exile in Switzerland at the age of 21; there, she learned French, which became the language in which she wrote her novels. The Notebook was her first, at least partly inspired by her childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Hungary. But all the geographical and temporal markers are stripped away from the brothers’ world, in sharp contrast to the precision of how they narrate events. The end result is a nightmarish timelessness that’s very hard to shake off. Kristof wrote two more books featuring the twins, which I’m sure I will go on to read one day. But The Notebook is complete in itself, ending in just the right place, ending on an image which is simple and stark, yet – in its own way – impossible to imagine.


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Strange Horizons review: Widow's Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

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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.


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.

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"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.

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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:


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


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