Category: Events

Some thoughts on Loncon

So, Loncon: I haven’t the time to write a full report – and, to be honest, I’m not sure that anything I wrote could do justice to this wonderful event. It was big without being overwhelming, had more than enough to keep anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction engaged for the full five days – and perhaps enough to make uninterested people start to change their minds.

I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen in the real world for months (years, in some cases), and was pleased to meet others for the first time. My three panels unfolded mostly as billed, went very well from my point of view, and certainly seemed to be well received. I’d like to thank everyone who joined me in a discussion, as participant or moderator: Nina Allan; Anne Charnock; Scott Edelman; Chris Gerwel; Leticia Lara; Kev McVeigh; Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Aishwarya Subramanian; E .J. Swift; and especially Adam Roberts, who generously agreed to join the Genre and Mainstream Panel at short notice.

There are two other things emerging from the con that I’d like to highlight, one general, one more specific. My general point is about the atmosphere of the con. I may have my reservations about genre SF and the culture that surrounds it, but I also need to champion what the community does well. SF has a long tradition of reader criticism, and that means a lot of people who take a serious analytical approach to their reading – and, when they gather together at an event like Loncon, the result is second-to-none.

To take one of my panels as an example: I and a panel of writers and editors spent the best part of an hour talking about three specific short stories. Imagine the literary festival where a mainstream equivalent of that could happen. Now imagine one with dozens of panels like (and unlike) this. The interested literary reader has nothing to compare; I know, because I’m such a reader as well.

My more specific point is a thought that has developed from some of the panels I attended on non-Western SF, and SF in translation. The point was made that Western audiences can be resistant to stories that lack conflict (stories without ‘moving parts’, as the writer Amal El-Mohtar put it). And I’m struck that similar attitudes often prevail towards mainstream-published SF (they can be stereotyped as focusing on character at the expense of a fully worked-out background, and so on). Of course, these are two different issues in many ways; but I do wonder if there’s a connection somewhere – perhaps a limited view of what science fiction can (or should) look like? This is a thought I’m keen to explore further.

Finally, my thanks to everyone who was involved in the organisation of Loncon. You did yourselves, and SF, proud.

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


BBC National Short Story Award 2013: the result

Last night, the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award was won by Sarah Hall for her story ‘Mrs Fox.; Lucy Wood was runner-up, for ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. It’s a good result, I think: Hall’s story, about a man whose relationship starts to break down when his wife undergoes a profound transformation (which may or may not be literal, for all the difference it makes), has a brilliant sense of wildness and mystery. I’ve already written about Wood’s tale in my review of Diving Belles; it was one of my favourite stories in her collection.

Actually, Hall’s and Wood’s were two of my three favourite stories on the Award shortlist (the third was ‘Barmouth’, Lisa Blower’s depiction of a woman’s life depicted through her caravan holidays, which creates a wonderful sense of time and place, and captures the melancholy of change). Interestingly, both the first- and second-place stories make use of the fantastic to explore personal concerns and notions of change. You can still pick up a copy of the Award anthology, which I’d suggest is well worth doing.

Event report: Juan Pablo Villalobos at the London Review Bookshop

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed going to the World Literature Series of events at the London Review Bookshop is the serendipity of learning about something I don’t know that well, which then turns out to be fascinating (so far, I’ve heard talks on Japanese book design and the Thousand and One Nights). Still, it is also nice to have the reference points of a more familiar subject, which is what I had for the latest event.

The evening was hosted by the excellent And Other Stories press, as publisher Stefan Tobler interviewed Juan Pablo Villalobos, the Mexican author of Down the Rabbit Hole (which I reviewed here) and Quesadillas (which I reviewed here). We began with Villalobos reading from the opening of Quesadillas, first in Spanish (cue laughter from the Spanish-speakers in the audience and those of us who’d already read the book in English and know what the beginning is like), then English (cue laughter from everyone else). Tobler then read from another And Other Stories title, Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s All Dogs are Blue (which I reviewed here), which Villalobos has translated into Spanish from the original Portugese. Both readings underlined how much these books are spoken texts.

The interview section started with Villalobos’s experience of translating All Dogs are Blue. The author said that he viewed translation as responding to an instinct to share a book you love with other readers (he’d been introduced to the book by Tobler, and immediately wanted to translate it for a Spanish-speaking audience). Thinking about it, I suspect that I’m responding to a similar instinct when I write about books.

I’m always interested to hear about the different kinds of choices that translators have to make. For Villalobos, there was the issue of slang; he ended up producing two versions, one Spanish, one Mexican. He also made  appoint of leaving in a lot of the Brazilian words, as he wanted the reader to remember that this was a Brazilian book. Villalobos suggested that the power of All Dogs are Blue lay in its imperfections, and I think that’s very true; the rhythm, flow and idiosyncracies of its language draw you into the narrator’s world.

Turning to Villalobos’s own work, he has been widely translated himself: Down the Rabbit Hole has been translated into fifteen languages, Quesadillas into eight. Villalobos commented that he saw similarities between All Dogs are Blue and Down the Rabbit Hole in terms of their tone and humour; I think there’s something in that, and I might add to that list the importance of the protagonists’ limited perspectives.

Villalobos said that the style of Quesadillas was meant to parody the rhetoric of politicians. He also talked about it being an ‘open’ book, all loose ends and a feeling of escape, in contrast with the more ‘closed’ Down the Rabbit Hole. I can see where he’s coming from with both of those points, but now I want to re-read the books to see what else I can find. And I’d say that an author event that leaves me wanting to revisit books that I’ve previously enjoyed is a very good event indeed. (Even better if it involves a chance to meet the author and get a book signed…)


Event report: Abelfattah Kilito and the Thousand and One Nights

WLS_GN_L (1)I enjoyed the June event in the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Series so much that I wanted to make sure I went along to this month’s, whatever the subject. It was another interesting event, though it may be that I lack some of the context to write it up properly. Here goes, anyway…

Abdelfattah Kilito is a Moroccan writer and critic; he was interviewed at the LRB shop by Marina Warner, mostly about his own fiction and one of his key scholarly interests, the Thousand and One Nights. Warner commented at one point that Kilito’s work often blurs the line between fiction, essay and memoir (which Kilito put down to his admiration of Borges); there was a similar blurring going on in this interview.

Kilito told of how, as a child, he could not afford to buy books; instead, at the age of 12, he joined an American library in his home city of Rabat. Most of the books were in English, but there was one stack of books in French – and so the young Kilito was set. The power of books and stories became a recurring theme of Kilito’s talk: he remarked that Scheherazade’s telling of stories saved a human community, because it stopped the King from killing women. In the end, the King demanded that Scheherazade’s stories be recorded by his scribes, even though he could have just taken the books from her library – there, Kilito suggested, was an early expression of the value of publishing.

Kilito said that he was fixated with the idea of people ‘carrying’ particular stories with them: anyone who tells a story discharges it to the listener – and they may go on to transmit it to someone else. He mentioned a story of souls in the underworld reading the books of their own lives; eventually the souls grew bored, and started swapping their books and reading each other’s – but then they forgot their own book, and were unable to find it again.

During the audience questions, Kilito suggested a difference between Arab intellectuals of the past and present: in the past, Arab intellectuals would translate works from other cultures a great deal, but were less concerned with having their own books translated. Now, Kilito said, Arab intellectuals may well want to be recognised in America and Europe – it can even be the case that they may not receive full attention in their home countries until they have that recognition elsewhere. But efforts to translate more go on, in all directions; stories continue to be carried and transmitted.

This was the last event in the 2012-13 World Literature Series; I’m only disappointed that I didn’t discover them sooner. I asked on Twitter if there’d be another Series, and received this reply:

Oh, I will.

Event report: Salon London’s Summer Essentials

Salon London is a monthly event that brings together science, art and psychology with three speakers looking at different aspects of the same subject – “massive ideas in intimate spaces”, as host Helen Bagnall put it. I went along to my first Salon last night, held in the Café at Foyles. The theme was “Summer Essentials” – and, appropriately enough for the location, began with books, as the Independent on Sunday’s literary editor, Katy Guest, recommended books for different situations on your summer holiday. As it turned out, I’ve only read one of them…

In the airport bookshop looking at the bestsellers? This year’s top surprise bestseller has been The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane’s tour of Britain’s ancient paths. [I can sort-of second this recommendation, as I remember enjoying Macfarlane’s reading from the book at last year’s Penguin bloggers’ night. I still haven’t read The Old Ways myself yet, though.]

Waiting for the plane and need something short? Try Ali Smith’s Shire [a mixture of essay and story that sounds to be in a similar vein to Artful], or Dan Rhodes’ Marry Me [that’s the one I’ve read; read my thoughts here – the short version is that I really liked it].

Need to get away from an annoying family? Become lost in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life [definitely a book I am intrigued to read]. Kids not keen on the prospect of studying Shakespeare? Give them Ben Crystal’s Springboard Shakespeare guides. [Apparently Ben Crystal is an actor who’s also son of the linguist David Crystal; if he shares his father’s touch for writing about language, I bet these books will be great.] Interested in all things Tudor and want to learn more? Try Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: the Family Story.

Then came questions from the audience. What books will Guest be taking on holiday? The newest ones, probably; but certainly Precious Thing by Colette McBeth. Being sent 200 books a week, how does Guest decide which to read? Covers can help, especially with new authors; Guest mentioned Polly Courtney, who left her publisher because she wasn’t happy with the chick-lit style covers they were using for her books, and pointed out that the cover for Courtney’s new novel, Feral Youth, is rather different.

Did Guest think John Williams’ Stoner was worth all the praise that’s been heaped on it? Bret Easton Ellis likes it; so, if you like him, then perhaps. Recommend a good big detective series? Not really something Guest reads much, but she suggested the work of Marian Keyes. What’s going to be the next big historical period in fiction? The eleventh century, tales of Vikings, Guest suggested.


Book recommendations in hand, we then heard from Robin Fegen, one of the directors of the Robin Collective, “purveyors of curious events and experimental food”. Fegen was here to speak on taste and flavour; he talked about how factors like colour and sound can affect how food tastes, and explained that there can be great individual variations in the sense of taste, with so-called “supertasters” being particularly sensitive (as the chemist Arthur L. Fox put it, people live in “different worlds of taste”.

Fegen had a few experiments for his audience to try, in order to see who might be the supertasters. My results were inconclusive: a tastebud-counting exercise suggested that I had a lower number than average, which tends to be characteristic of a nontaster – but I could very much sense the bitter taste of PTC, which would point towards the opposite case. Maybe I should just conclude that I have good taste…


The evening’s final speaker was John-Paul Flintoff, whose topic was “how to have meaningful conversations”. Time was a little tight at this point, so we didn’t have chance to try all the activities Flintoff had planned – a pity, really, because the session was good fun. I especially like the idea that a good conversation should be an adventure – sounds a good guiding principle to me.

Edge Hill Prize 2013: And the winner is…

Last night, the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize was awarded to Kevin Barry for his collection Dark Lies the Island.

As well as the main prize, Barry also won the Readers’ Prize. These add to a growing tally of prizes that he has won in recent years – with good reason. What was also clear from Barry’s acceptance speech was that he’s a great ambassador for the short story. Many congratulations to him.

Elsewhere on the blog, you can read my review of  Dark Lies the Island here; and check out a discussion from last year of Kevin Barry’s story ‘Atlantic City’.

Event report: the Peirene Experience and Japanese books

I’ve been on the road (well, on the train, really) this week to a couple of bookish events that I’d like to share with you. One was the Peirene Experience, an evening to celebrate the publication of Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, the latest title from Peirene Press. Though I’ve read all their books, I have never managed to make it along to a Peirene event until now, and I had always wanted to go to one. I went to the second event more on spec, as part of my plan to get more into world literature. It was part of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Series, this time focusing on Japan. As you’ll see, I’m very glad to have been to both evenings.


So, to Belgravia Books on Wednesday, where Peirene Press’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, hosted as three guests each offered their own take on the book. First up was actor Adam Venus, who gave two readings over the course of the evening. His first was the book’s opening, and it was fascinating to realise just how different this felt from when I had read it silently to myself. Carlson’s text switches back and forth between a third-person narrator and the inner thoughts of various villagers; I’d read this quite steadily, but Venus brought home the dynamism of Carlson’s style. His second reading, from near the end of the novel, focused more on Thomas Davies, the titular gardener who wonders what, if anything, he should believe in. Unlike the other first-person voices, Venus read Thomas’s thoughts in the same measured voice that he used for the narrator, which again placed an interesting contrast on the text that hadn’t struck me so strongly on first reading.

The second performer was violinist Javier Garcia Aranda, who performed his own compositions (a series of sketches, and later a more extended piece) interpreting various extracts from the text. This was almost a musical remix of Carlson’s novel, as Aranda brought the focus in on a few sentences at a time, without necessarily needing reference to their wider context. I’m not particularly musical, so I don’t think there’s a lot I can say about this; but I was impressed at Aranda’s range, and really appreciated being able to see the close connections between text and music.

After the first reading and recital, Emily Jeremiah, one of the translators of Mr Darwin’s Gardener, spoke about some of the challenges of creating an English version from the Finnish original – which must be even greater given how idiosyncratic is this particular book. Jeremiah gave one example of a four-sentence extract In English that had been a single sentence in Finnish, the two languages’ grammars being so different. The other day, I was reading a piece that Stu Allen wrote for the Booktrust website, where he talks about a literary translator being like a musician who ‘plays’ the author’s composition. I think Jeremiah’s talk here showed just how true that is – and, of course, Venus and Aranda showed how something similar can be true for different kinds of performance.

I can’t speak for anyone who hadn’t read Mr Darwin’s Gardener in advance of the event, but I thought this was a superb introduction to Carlson’s novel. The reading and music gave a way in to the novel on an instinctual and emotional level, before Jeremiah turned to more practical matters. But the emphasis was still on personal responses, and this is what I found especially valuable as someone who had already read the book – the opportunity to experience how others saw it. I look forward to more Peirene Press events in the future, and I’d love to see more literary events this creative.


WLS_GY_LFrom Belgravia Books to the London Review Bookshop, and the latest in their monthly World Literature Series, which took place yesterday. The bookshop’s guest was author and editor Masashi Matsuie, who began the evening with an illustrated talk on Japanese book design. He explained that modern Japanese hardcover books would often come in their own separate box (though this is less common nowadays – the high point for the practice was in the 1960s and ‘70s). They would also have an illustrated page in a different paper stock before the title page. Matsuie showed pictures of some beautiful books – volumes with illustrated endpapers, titles embossed on their spines, illustrations impress into front covers. It was clear to me just how much care and attention had gone into these designs. I think sometimes book design can be undervalued or taken for granted, so it was great to see it being celebrated here.

Translator Michael Emmerich then took to the stage to interview Matsuie, after a reading from Matsuie’s 2012 debut novel, At the Foot of the Volcano (delivered alternately in Japanese by Matsuie and English by Emmerich). The novel (not yet published in English, but I hope it will be) concerns the relationship between an architecture student and the older architect whose work he admires and whose practice he joins. Matsuie said that drew on his own career in publishing to write about his protagonist’s architecture career, and that he  himself had thought of being an architect until he realised he didn’t have the right skills. Emmerich commented that it seemed to him almost as though the spaces were more important than the characters in the novel; and I could certainly imagine that from the extract we heard, which vividly described a church designed by the protagonist’s hero (I especially loved the image of the church looking “like a grey cat curled up in a ball waiting to nap”). Emmerich asked Matsuie if there was a parallel for him between designing books and designing architectural spaces; the author replied that he hadn’t thought of it that way before, but there probably was something to that. This is just one example of what an interesting and illuminating evening this was.

I must mention one more thing. During the Q&A session afterwards, an audience member asked if it were possible to see any of the boxed books, but Matsuie said that unfortunately he hadn’t brought any samples with him. The bookseller holding the roving mic then immediately turned around, pulled a copy of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates from the shelf and handed it to Matsuie, who had never come across the book before and was keen to take a closer look at it. I noticed in passing that The Unfortunates is still on sale with the same design as it had when I first saw a copy in 1999. That’s a testament to good book design, just as the whole incident is a testament to good bookshops. I’d like to thank everyone involved in putting on last night’s event (and, of course, Peirene’s on Wednesday). I thoroughly enjoyed it, learned a lot… and I already have next month’s World Lit Series event in my diary.

Bookish travels

I’ve been away these last few days, and now it’s time for a catch-up. Last week was the third annual Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, when a bunch of book bloggers and vloggers gathered together at Foyles in London to hear eight of Penguin’s authors read from their latest books.

My favourite reading of the night came from Bernardine Evaristo, who read a hilarious passage from her forthcoming novel Mr Loverman. This was one of those rare occasions when a single short reading was enough to make me want to read everything an author had written – Evaristo was that good. It was also a pleasure to hear Mohsin Hamid read from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia; I liked the book anyway, but Hamid was an excellent reader who brought it to life for me once again.

Other highlights from the evening included James Robertson’s ominous extract from The Professor of Truth; Jonathan Coe’s amusing scene from Expo 58; and Joanna Rossiter reading the opening of The Sea Change, a book that I already wanted to read, and am now looking forward to reading even more.


Then, at the weekend, it was off to Bradford for this year’s Eastercon. It was good to catch up with people like Kev McVeigh and Ian Sales; to have a proper chat with Nina Allan and Chris Priest; and to meet new people, such as Anne Sudworth (who paints the most wonderful pictures) and Stephanie Saulter (whose debut novel Gemsigns sounds interesting).

I was particularly pleased to take part in the “Best Books of 2012” panel, where a group of us recommended some favourite reads from last year. I went for Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo; Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles; and Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass – and I was able to sneak in a bonus mention of Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child during the audience questions. I picked up a couple of recommendations myself from the rest of the panel: I’ve read Frances Hardinge before, but her latest sounds interesting; and I’m coming to think I should try something by Chuck Wendig.

The BSFA Awards were also announced during the weekend:

  • Best Novel: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • Best Short Fiction: ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ by Ian Sales
  • Best Non-Fiction: The World SF Blog, edited by Lavie Tidhar
  • Best Artwork: Cover of Jack Glass, by Blacksheep

That’s a fine list of winners, a real vote of confidence in people who are concerned for the vitality of science fiction.

Now Eastercon is over for another year, and it’s back to reading (for the time being – I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention this autumn, for instance). Now my attention turns to the Clarke Award, whose shortlist is announced in a couple of days. And it goes on…

Book giveaway: Various Authors from The Fiction Desk

To celebrate the launch of the Sunday Story Society, those good folks at The Fiction Desk have let me have six copies of Various Authors, their first anthology, to give away. It has twelve stories by authors including Charles Lambert and Danny Rhodes, and can be yours in exchange for a comment…

How to enter

If you’d like the chance to win a copy of Various Authors, leave a comment on this post, naming a favourite short story and saying why you like it so much. The explanation doesn’t have to be long, but I won’t accept your entry without one. You have until 11.59pm UK time on Sunday 29 July to enter, after which I’ll select six winners at random. The giveaway is open to anyone worldwide, but only one entry is allowed per person, and only on this comment thread.

And while you’re here, why not join with our current Sunday Story Society discussion, on Jennifer Egan’s Twitter story “Black Box”?

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