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Every year around this time I have a debate with myself about whether I should retire as a juror on the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is long enough. It’s a time-consuming job (we’ve had over 100 books submitted this year, and there are a few more I’m hoping to see come in, and I am not a very fast reader), and when I’m supposed to be working on something, like the Priest book that I should be researching, it can be very difficult to find that time. It is also a dispiriting job; there are so many bad books out there, there are times ploughing through another pile of submissions when I wonder what is the point of science fiction any more. Yet it can also be exhilarating, when you happen upon a book that really is fresh and intelligent and exciting that you otherwise would probably not have encountered. A couple of years ago, when the prize went to Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman, was like that, and a couple of years before that when we gave the award to Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. These few gems really are wonderful compensation, and I am grateful to have encountered them, but do they make up for everything else? That is what I find myself trying to decide.

The problem is sorting out the ones that deserve attention from the rest. The first submissions tend to arrive early in January (I’m sure it used to be earlier, but that’s what it has been for the last couple of years at least) and we need to have made our decision by the beginning of May. This means that the judging process is largely squeezed into a three-month period from mid-January to mid-April. Anyone who sees my annual account of the year’s reading that I post around New Year on this blog will know that I struggle to read 60 or 70 books per year, so how do I cope with reading 100 books in a quarter of that time? The answer is: I don’t.

Time for some cold hard facts about the judging process. This is not some romantic enterprise in which we’re all setting out to find good in everything, we’re not giving books the benefit of the doubt until we come across that aside half-way down page 265 that makes the heart sing. If the heart hasn’t been singing long before then, it’s already out of the reckoning. We’re not looking to find the good in the book; we’re expecting the book to tell us how exceptional it is. We know we’ll be lucky if we find two or three books out of the hundred we receive that truly are exceptional, and with each book we’re saying: prove to me that you are worth my time. And if the book can’t prove it, well, sorry, but there’s another book waiting for my attention. If you’ve ever seen M*A*S*H, then you know that scene where new wounded arrive and the surgeons descend on the bodies like carrion crows. In seconds they are making decisions: prep this one for surgery, this one can wait, this one’s too far gone already. That is rather how judging a literary award feels to me from the inside. It’s not exactly life or death decisions that we’re making, but we are using our experience and our judgement to make snap decisions about which books are going to be worth our attention.

How do we make that decision? The first thing to realise is that it is never one thing. For a start there are seven of us on the jury, we all have different approaches to the task, we are all looking for different things, we all have different responses to what does or doesn’t make a book work. The particulars that will inform my decision may well seem irrelevant to the other judges, and vice versa. That’s part of the strength of the system; if a book comes through all of that and still wins the approval of the jury as a whole, it’s going to have something going for it. On the other hand …

Judging is a collegiate business. During the months we are engaged in this process, we are frantically exchanging emails: what do you make of this, has anyone else read that, this is my take on such-and-such. If a couple of my fellow jurors say X is a bad book, then X is going to slip down your reading list because it’s unlikely it will garner the strength of support needed to put it in contention for the prize. Similarly, if a couple of my fellow jurors say Y is surprisingly good, then I’m likely to pay it more careful attention because it could be a contender. That’s what happened with Lerman’s Radiomen, which I initially thought didn’t look too promising until another juror said how good it was and it made me look again.

Sometimes, eliminating books from consideration can be quite easy. The Campbell is an award for Best Novel, so the three collections of short stories that were submitted this year were never seriously in contention.

The Campbell is also an award for science fiction. Now my definition of science fiction tends to be catholic and fluid, but for the sake of the award I tend to work to a narrower definition in line with the views of some of my fellow jurors. Suffice it to say that if we are presented with magic, dragons, and quests among pseudo-medieval kingdoms, the author is going to have to work hard to convince me that it is not fantasy. There were quite a few books this year that really didn’t work that hard.

After that, it becomes more of a judgement call; but that, after all, is what this is all about. I tend to read the first chapter or so, then flick ahead to read a few pages around the middle of the book. What I’m looking for is something that engages my attention, that makes me want to read the whole book. So far this year, and I still have a fair bit of reading ahead of me, I’ve read eight of the submissions through from beginning to end. That is actually a much higher total than usual, because it means that eight books are in contention so far as I am concerned. There are others where I read maybe half way through before deciding it wasn’t working as well as I would like. But the majority of the submissions don’t get that far, inevitably so, because judging is, after all, a process of elimination. (In my more fanciful moments, I think the term is not elimination but sculpting: you are presented with a block of literature, and your job is to chip away until you get at the wonderful figure within the heart of the block.)

What is it that makes me put a book down, that makes me decide I don’t see this as a contender for the award? Put simply: I am reading for pleasure, and therefore I am looking for a book that gives me pleasure; and I am reading science fiction, therefore I am looking for a book that does what I think the best science fiction should do. For the record, I think the best science fiction should make us see the world anew, should challenge our preconceptions, should encourage us to think afresh.

So, if the book I pick up has dull, pedestrian prose, it will not give me pleasure, and so is put aside.

If a book I am reading fails to excite me with a new vision of what science fiction can achieve, I put it aside. This can take many forms. If a book is volume umpteen in a series, the chances are that any novelty would have come in the first volume or two, and by now the best we can expect is that it features a moderately fresh exploration of a basic scenario that is already very familiar. This is part of the nature of series: if fans want to keep reading volume after volume, it is likely because they want to reacquaint themselves with familiar characters and return to a familiar world. It is not impossible for later volumes in a series to catch our eye, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, the second volume in his Fractured Europe sequence, and Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley, the fourth book in his Quiet War sequence, both made our shortlist precisely because we felt they had moved things in a new direction. But this is not common, in general the greatest innovation comes at the start of the sequence.

Then there is a trend that seems to be becoming more common in sf, by which modern writers revisit and try to recreate the worlds of sf from a previous generation. Technically, I find this an interesting exercise, but I am very unlikely to consider such works as contenders for the prize. Their whole raison d’etre is to turn back to an older form of science fiction, so they are, almost by definition, not innovating.

Of course, it’s not necessary to try to relive the Golden Age or write an endless series to avoid innovation. Science fiction is full of cliches, and they crop up with alarming regularity. Frankly, when I’m reading for the Campbell Award, the moment I start thinking I’ve read this before, I close the book, unless the author has somehow already convinced me that they are capable of subverting or reinventing the familiar. Few of them are, because, to be honest, that’s not where the money is. It is easier to pick up sales by promising more of what we know you already like than it is to offer something you’ve never read before. But it is the outliers, the ones who do carve out a new territory, that I am most interested in. Again, it is not impossible to catch my attention with work that occupies familiar territory. This year, for instance, I was engaged enough to read all the way through The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt because I felt he was at least trying to edge away from the cliches of space opera, and while the surface plot of Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas was the sort of extended chase-capture-escape sequence we’ve all seen far too many times before, the complex underlying political character of the world felt distinctive and interesting.

There are, inevitably, prejudices involved here. How could there not be; we all have prejudices, we all have things we like and things we don’t like. For my part, I do not particularly like military sf or steampunk, so those types of book have to work extra hard to hold my attention. As I say, not impossible (Linda Nagata’s The Red, for instance), but vanishingly rare. And I have started to develop an intense dislike of any book in which the heroine is described as “kickass”. What this tends to mean is that the only thing to distinguish the heroine from a brutish, heavy-drinking, hard fighting male is the pronoun used, as if this were some gigantic victory for feminism. Prejudice, I know, though I have yet to read any novel with the word “kickass” emblazoned somewhere on the cover in which I could not substitute the word “he” for “she” throughout and notice no significant difference. But that, of course, is why we have a panel of jurors; they hopefully compensate for my prejudices as I compensate for theirs.

The thing is, we are not reading to hate books. We are genuinely searching for the book that stands out above all others. But that can only be one book out of the hundred or so we receive, so a large part of the task is finding reasons to eliminate books along the way.

The trouble is that with too many of the books, that elimination is too easy. When you spend your days picking up and discarding, picking up and discarding, books that are dull, repetitive, uninventive, the whole exercise becomes dispiriting. Has science fiction really come to this? Alas, for too many people too much of the time, the answer is yes. And so I start to ask myself: do I really want to keep on doing this? Is it time to call it a day?

I must go on. I can’t go on. I go on.




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loose canonLoose Canon by Ian Shircore is essentially a poor man’s version of Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, and I learned a lot from it. It has to be essential reading for any fan of perhaps the finest songwriting team of the late twentieth century, if only because of the dearth of other material. But it is a partial book, it doesn’t even pretend to cover all of their songs, and many of my favourite Atkin/James songs (A King at Nightfall, Driving Through Mythical America, The Prince of Aquitaine) aren’t even mentioned, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in Shircore’s book about the tropes and themes that recur in the songs, some of those themes, such as James’s habit of filtering the world through references to often obscure Hollywood films, do not get the depth of analysis I think they deserve. So here are a few other things about the music of Pete Atkin and Clive James.

driving through mythical americaI don’t remember how I came across them. Their music seems to have been an intimate part of my entire life, and in such circumstances there are no real beginnings. The first album I got was Driving Through Mythical America, which I must have picked up back in 1971 or 72 soon after it came out. I don’t know what the impetus was that made me pick it up, perhaps a song on the radio, but it was surely my happiest musical discovery. I only ever saw them perform live once, in 2005 (so long ago?) in Canterbury, two old men who had recently started performing together again after more than 20 years out of the business. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the reality was better, it was mesmerising. The songs hold up better than anything else from that era. In interviews, Clive James has said he is prouder of his songwriting than his poetry; I understand the feeling, but what makes the songs so good is that they are written with a poetic rather than a lyrical sensibility. Sometimes this shows through, as in Girl On The Train, for instance, in which “mouth” is rhymed with “earth”, a rhyme which works visually on the page but not vocally, but this is a rare exception.

a king at nightfallThe words were always written first, then Pete Atkin would spend days, sometimes weeks or even longer fitting music to them. In part because he sings with such clear diction that every word is always crystal clear, and because the music showcases the lyrics so well, I always used to think of Atkin’s music as fairly simple. It was only when I started trying to play it on guitar that I realised just how richly complex his music is. He uses a lot of complex chords that aren’t common in popular music, a lot of 9th chords, for instance (the shift between Em9 and A9 in A King At Nightfall, or the C9, F9, D9 progression in All The Dead Were Strangers, and Thirty Year Man has a G13b9 chord that I still haven’t worked out); and the rhythms vary constantly, from the jazzy C-Bb-C-Bb opening of Thirty Year Man to the more folky strum of Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger. There’s a fairly straightforward illustration of how adept Atkin was in mastering different musical styles in their 6th (and for a long time their last) album, Live Libel, which contains effortless parodies of about a dozen different forms of popular music, from country to heavy metal. It is not a great album – Atkin and James weren’t popular with the label because they simply weren’t producing the hits that were expected, and this was an openly derisory effort to complete and get out of their contract – but it is instructive in its way, and at times quite funny.

Why they didn’t break through to a mass audience is, of course, one of the great mysteries. They began writing songs as undergraduates at Cambridge, and there is always an edge of undergraduate cleverness about their stuff, but were they too clever? Yet at pretty much the same time Leonard Cohen was being equally clever in his lyrics. Was it the jazz infusion that Atkin brought into so many of the songs? But Joni Mitchell was being jazzy and popular at the same time. They had devoted fans, including people like John Peel, but it never translated into high sales.

My own theory was that the mood of the songs was at odds with what people wanted from popular song. The overwhelming mood evoked by their early albums is pathos: they were songs about failure, death, loss, often comic in effect but pathetic nevertheless. There were, for instance, no straightforward love songs. If there are love songs, it is about unrequited love for another man’s wife:

Another night I bring the flowers and the wine
Has slipped away

There were only three to dine
And two to stay

Or the object of affection doesn’t even notice the hopeless swain:

Apart from the chance of the driver accepting a cheque
For crashing his loco so I could be brave in the wreck
To boldly encounter this creature was not in my power
So my heart mended and broke in the course of an hour.

beware of the beautiful strangerJames’s heroes can can look forward only to an endless stream of broken relationships, as the character granted the chance to see his future mistress in a crystal ball:

“Hello there” she said with her hand to her brow
“I’m the one you’ll meet after the one you know now
There’s no room inside here to show you us all
But behind me the queue stretches right down the hall
For the damned there is always a stranger
There is always a beautiful stranger”

And this wasn’t just a characteristic of James’s writing; one of only two songs that Pete Atkin wrote the lyrics for concludes:

All I ever did while you were here was done for you
Now through my tears I’m asking why
All you ever said was goodbye.

And it is not just love that is imbued with this fatalistic tone. There are any number of songs about death and defeat:

You spun the crown away into a ditch
And saw the water close
The army that you fed now feeds the crows
A king at nightfall

So yesterday they left me on the ice
I could barely lift my head to watch them go
The sky was white, my eyes grew full of snow
And what thing reached me first, bears or the weather,
I just don’t know.

Even a song about the dignity of labour, an expression of the left-wing sensibility that comes out in so many of James’s lyrics, turns into a song about a funeral:

He was generally respected, and the proof
Was a line of hired Humbers tagging quietly behind
A fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof.

And one of the most syntactically convoluted sentences in popular song also ends in death:

When on the outskirts of the town
Comes bumping cavernously down
Out of the brick gateway
From the faded mansion on the hill
The out-of-date black Cadillac
With the old man crumpled in the back
That time has not yet found the time to kill.

[In a parenthetical aside: you go to the web sites of singers and songwriters and you will find the chords for their songs all very carefully transcribed. It’s a valuable resource for those of us learning guitar. But I wish they were as careful transcribing the lyrics. The transcription of The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance, has a line that the web site tells us is “The cemetery of home”, but the sense of the lyrics, common sense and a casual listen to the song will tell us this is really “The cemetery of hope”. There’s something similar on Al Stewart’s site, where the lyrics as given insist that the final verse of Electric Los Angeles Sunset includes the line “Movie queens diffuse into a cinerama haze”, where sense, internal rhymes and a listen will tell us the real line is “Movie queues diffuse into a cinerama haze”. And these people are supposed to be listening carefully to what is going on.]

Back to The Faded Mansion On The Hill, which appeared on the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, and I am convinced that the passage I quoted is a direct reference to the Stacy Keach character in Robert Altman’s 1970 film, Brewster McCloud. This, of course, is perfectly in keeping with James’s interest in the cinema, which would pretty soon translate into a film reviewing spot on TV where he would first come to popular attention. Film references constantly crop up in his work, most interestingly, to my ears, in Driving Through Mythical America.

This, again from 1971, is a direct response to the shootings at Kent State University:

Four students never knew that this was it
There isn’t much a target needs to know
Already Babyface had made the hit
And Rosebud was upended in the snow

America is not a real place, but a melange of film references. The real urgent moral and political purpose that got the four students at Kent State killed is overwhelmed by the pretend America that is created by a diet of Hollywood movies.

Movie metaphors recur constantly throughout James’s work:

Through screens of memory you leave me
Smile on the screen behind
And then the screen behind the screen behind the screen
But nothing alters what has been
Nor do my eyes deceive me

Or again:

And I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon falling moulting to the street
He was caught by Queen Christina who was Following the Fleet
And Scarface found the Sleep was even Bigger than the Heat
When he hit the Yellowbrick Road to where the Grapes of Wrath are sweet

The problem with an exercise like this is that there is no limit. Clive James’s lyrics are so meaty you want to keep quoting them, in fact you want to cite the complete lyrics of every song, simply because they are so good, and because there is such intimate connection within the lyrics that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Of course there are problems, one of the things that makes the lyrics so alive is that they are of the moment as much as they are timeless. Would a reference to duty-free allowances in The Prince of Aquitaine –

I have brought them all the plunder of the international jets
An envelope of sugar and two hundred cigarettes

– require an explanatory footnote nowadays? Is a line like this, in A King At Nightfall –

Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field
Will be in it for the bread
There’ll be a price on your anointed head

– sound too slangy to a modern ear?And yet the songs work for me, probably better than any others. They make me laugh, they make me wonder; at times the writing is extraordinarily beautiful, at other times it is delightfully colloquial. I keep playing them over, on my music system, on my guitar, or just in my head. They do what the very best songs are supposed to do.


For Art’s Sake?


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I’ve been neglecting this blog recently: too busy keeping up with too much reading for the Campbell Award. It’s frustrating, I’ve got a couple of biggish things in my mind to write here, and by the time the decks are clear enough to do so I’m sure the inspiration will have faded, or I’ll have forgotten why on earth I wanted to write about that.

But here’s a brief thought, as a place holder if nothing more.

The first episode of Civilizations has Simon Schama talking about the origins of human art, and eventually he comes down to something like: “This is art because it is beautiful!” It’s the sort of floundering generalization we all make at some time or other: art equals beauty, art is the creation of beauty, if it’s beautiful it must be art. And yes, some art, quite a lot of visual art, is beautiful. But not all. Some art is ugly, deliberately so; some art is making a point or telling a story, and whether or not it is beautiful is irrelevant to whether it is art; and our ideas about what constitutes beauty change in ways that our ideas of what constitutes art do not change.

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an interesting article by John Banville about Oscar Wilde. Inevitably it raises the idea that first came to prominence among the exquisites, the belle lettrists, the romantics of the late-Victorian age: Art for Art’s sake. It is a resonant phrase that was still current in my youth, and for all I know is still current in some artistic quarters today. It is, of course, an abdication; it is Walter Pater and the aesthetics, and their peers and descendants throwing up their arms in defeat and crying: we don’t know what art is and we don’t know what it’s for, but we know it should be for something. (Following Carlyle, the Victorians were great believers that everything should be for some social or moral good, a viewpoint we’ve still not shaken off.) So, art is its own purpose.

But that is surely missing the point. Art is many things. It is the glorious and tiny carved female head that Schama was looking at when he declared: this is beautiful and therefore this is art. It is the song I haltingly pick out on my guitar. It is the seering dystopian novel I am currently reading. It is the broad comedy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is painting and scrimshaw and poetry and dance and film and theatre and prose and …

And just as there is nothing that binds these various forms into a whole (they are certainly not all beautiful), so there is no one reason why we engage in creating or consuming these various arts. Yes, we might want to create beauty, or it is to exercise a skill, or to make a political point, or to express a spiritual belief, or to make money, or all of these or none of them.

I said, long ago, that science fiction is indefinable because it is not one thing, though the various strands that make up science fiction are loosely linked by family resemblances. That is an idea I stole from Ludwig Wittgenstein who argued, in Philosophical Investigations, that sport is indefinable because it is not one thing, but various sports are loosely linked by family resemblances. And the same, surely, is true of art. We shouldn’t try and define art because it is indefinable, it is not one thing. A painting, such as Philip Evergood’s “Dance Marathon” from 1934, may have family resemblances to a film, such as Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? from 1969; but there are other things (not least the medium) that divide them.

And this is a good thing. All these things, art and sport and science fiction, are the more interesting precisely because they are so malleable, so imprecise, so various. There are as many science fictions as there are readers and practitioners of the form; there are as many sports as there are sports people and spectators; there are as many arts as there are artists and writers and film makers and photographers and people who enjoy and appreciate and benefit from these paintings and stories and movies and pictures. That is why art is so important to us; because in all its multifarious forms it is never speaking to the many but to the one, to me. And it speaks in many languages. You and I may experience the same piece of art, and what it says to you cannot be precisely what it says to me.

That is why it is art. That is what art is for: not for its own sake, not for any quantifiable social benefit, not for any religious or political purpose, but because in art something expressed to the many speaks uniquely to me.


Iain Banks Chronologies


I’ve just now needed to look back at something I wrote in Iain M. Banks, and I was reminded again how complex the chronology of his work is. The order in which his books were published is not the same as the order in which they were composed, and both differ again from the internal chronology of the Culture sequence.

So here, just for the record, and just to keep things clear in my own mind, are the three chronologies (for extra clarity, I’ve highlighted the Culture novels):

Order of composition

The Top of Poseidon (unpublished)
The Hungarian Lift-Jet (unpublished)
The Tashkent Rambler (unpublished)
Use of Weapons
Against a Dark Background
The State of the Art
The Player of Games
The Wasp Factory
Consider Phlebas
Walking on Glass

O (unpublished)
The Bridge
Espedair Street
Canal Dreams
The Crow Road
Feersum Endjinn
A Song of Stone
The Business
Look to Windward
Dead Air
Raw Spirit
The Algebraist
The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Surface Detail
The Hydrogen Sonata
The Quarry

Note the long gap, more than a decade, between writing Consider Phlebas and the next Culture novel, Excession. The gap doesn’t look so huge when you consider the next chronology:

Order of Publication

The Wasp Factory (1984)
Walking on Glass (1985)
The Bridge (1986)
Consider Phlebas (1987)
Espedair Street (1987)
The Player of Games (1988)
Canal Dreams (1989)
The State of the Art (novella, 1989)
Use of Weapons (1990)
The Crow Road (1991)
The State of the Art (collection, 1991)
Against a Dark Background (1993)
Complicity (1993)
Feersum Endjinn (1994)
Wilt (1995)
Excession (1996)
A Song of Stone (1997)
Inversions (1998)
The Business (1999)
Look to Windward (2000)
Dead Air (2002)
Raw Spirit (2003)
The Algebraist (2004)
The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)
Matter (2008)
Transition (2009)
Surface Detail (2010)
Stonemouth (2012)
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)
The Quarry (2013)

Here, the long gap in the composition of Culture novels is less apparent, but what does become noticeable is the stutter in the first decade of this century, when various personal issues broke up the smooth sequence of a book a year.

But the order in which the various Culture novels should be read is different again:

Internal chronology of the Culture novels

Consider Phlebas
Excession (500 years later)
The State of the Art (100 years later)
Matter (60 years later)
The Player of Games and Use of Weapons (both around 55 years later)
Look to Windward (75 years later)
The Hydrogen Sonata (200 years later)
Surface Detail (500 years later)

The whole sequence, therefore, covers some 1,500 years. These time periods can be calculated from internal evidence, usually references to the war in Consider Phlebas, (for instance, Look to Windward is built around the 800th anniversary of the war) though there are direct connections between The State of the Art and Use of WeaponsInversions is the one Culture novel that does not have any obvious dating information.



Saussure, Shklovsky and Me


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Way back in the dim and distant days of Livejournal (okay, 2009), I decided I needed to read up a little more on literary theory. I had read a bit, but in a disorganized, unstructured way. I have never actually studied Theory.

So, one day when I was suffering a particularly enervating head cold (I’m not sure if that is pertinent or not), I decided I would read through David Lodge’s anthology, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. And to maintain my interest, I thought I would blog about each piece as I read it.

The experiment didn’t last long. I read and wrote about the extracts from Ferdinand de Saussure and Victor Shklovsky, but I got bogged down in the two extracts from Roman Jakobson, and besides at that time I had other things on my mind. So I put Lodge’s anthology to one side, always meaning to pick it up again when time allowed.

Then, once I copied the two posts over to this blog when it was new in 2011, I started noticing an odd thing. Those two posts were consistently popular. In fact the post on Saussure is the third most visited post on this blog, Shklovsky is not far behind as the fifth most visited post. And it is not just that a lot of people have read them, it is that the visits are consistent, a regular trickle of visitors throughout the year, but with a noticeable increase in interest during the autumn and again early in the New Year. If you look at the search terms that bring people to this blog by far the most popular terms (that is, some variant on these terms will show up at least once a week and a certain times of the year once a day) are “theory and saussure” and “theory and shklovsky”.

In other words, every term poor benighted students are being introduced to literary theory and are frantically googling for any help they can get in mastering these rather offputting ideas. And they end up with me! Good heavens, I can see myself being cited in undergraduate essays around the globe, to the evident mystification of the tutors.

My immediate reaction to this is: for goodness sake, NO! I know nothing about these people. I have read nothing beyond the brief extracts in Lodge’s book. At best, what I have written is a lightning-flash glimpse of some tiny fraction of their work, not a considered or informed response to their ideas in total. I am an amateur; this is an immediate response to a first encounter.

Yet still they come. I am in the middle of one of the periodic explosions of interest in Saussure. Shklovsky will doubtless follow in the next week or so.

Which is why I now feel I can never go back to Lodge’s anthology.





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the dreams of bethany mellmothWilliam Boyd, of course, would never think of giving one of his books such a dull title. Would he? But several times during the course of his new collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, one or other of his characters will have written a novel, or a film script, or some such endeavour, called Oblong. It is clearly a joke, but not a very funny one.

The real joke is that Oblong would probably have been an appropriate title for the collection. It would, at least, suggest something of the continuity between the stories that he seems to be striving towards but signally fails to achieve.

These are, after all, virtually without exception, stories about novelists, film makers, art dealers, or would be members of such professions. Boyd has, himself, of course, experience in all three areas, so there is an insider feel to much of what we get here. But insider feel alone is not enough.

I hold Boyd in high esteem, he has remained one of the most consistent and reliable of the novelists of that generation. While some of his contemporaries, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, have become dull or irrelevant or self-satisfied, his work has tended to remain fresh, engaging, and well worth reading. Some of his novels (I would pick The New Confessions, The Blue Afternoon, Any Human Heart, and Sweet Caress) are, I think, particularly good. What makes them good is that Boyd is interested in story; there is always a strong plot thread running through his work which keeps us interested in the drama of what we are being told. Which may be why he is also so effective as a screenwriter and even as a director. The cross-over effect is obvious in his fiction not in the usual way, the jump cuts and dialogue that can make so many recent novels read more like film scripts, but in the way he focuses, the way small things acquire significance.

Unfortunately, he has never carried those talents into his short fiction (there is one exception in this collection, but it is an odd exception and I will come to that later). This is the third or fourth of his five short story collections that I have read (if I read On the Yankee Station it was so long ago that I have forgotten all details, hence the hesitation; the collection, The Dream Lover, I know about only because it is listed with his other works in this volume, I don’t recall ever even seeing a copy). And I think the fact that I persist is a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience: I always expect better of Boyd, I am always disappointed.

Boyd simply seems to have forgotten the importance of story in stories. Instead he indulges in some overly familiar formal literary experimentation. One story of a relationship is told backwards from break-up to first meeting, adding nothing to the countless times we have seen exactly the same thing before. There’s a story told in diary entries, in which each of the diarists witness the same event, interpret it differently, and never fully understand what actually happened. Another story is told entirely through unsent letters. Actually this one is curious, an opportunity missed. Epistolary fiction is, of course, just about as old as English Literature, so the fact that the letters are unsent seems like a novelty, giving vent to rage and frustration. However, so much of the short fiction here is built around that good old typically English emotional experience, embarrassment; so if the letters had been sent the story could have acquired another emotional level as the author then rowed frantically back on his accusations and self-justifications. Maybe not; my thoughts turned this way only because I found the unsent letters themselves so unsatisfactory as a story.

When he is not playing with form, Boyd’s stories tend to be concatenations of vignettes that are vaguely linked without ever really seeming to form a whole. The prime example here is the longest piece in the book, the novella, “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth”, which describes a series of brief encounters over two years in the life of a young woman. Bethany drifts from boyfriend to boyfriend, doomed to be disappointed by each one in turn and head back home to mother. She drifts from dead-end job to dead-end job, usually acquired through her mother who seems to be extraordinarily rich and well connected (this is not unusual, most of the stories are about rich and well-connected people, or people who move freely in such circles; it is an achingly middle class book). She drifts from artistic aspiration to artistic aspiration: at various times she is going to be an author, an actress, a photographer, a singer, without ever making much effort to pursue these aspirations. And at the end she drifts away from the story, and we re left to wonder what that was all about.

Occasionally, Boyd seems to respond to some atavistic memory that there is supposed to be story in here somewhere. Thus in “Humiliation” a novelist gets revenge on the critic who savaged his latest book by feeding the critic a tainted oyster, which somehow feels more petty than dramatic.

In all of this, Boyd remains a fine writer. On a sentence-by-sentence level the work is engaging; the problem is that the sentences don’t seem to add up to anything. But there is, as I said, an exception: the very last piece in the book, a novelette called “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure …”, which, after what had gone before, I fell upon with cries of joy (so one does vaguely wonder whether the contrast makes it seem more, but I dismiss such thoughts as irrelevant). The story begins, oddly enough, with a quotation from Isaac Asimov; I wouldn’t have Boyd pegged as an Asimov fan, and there is certainly nothing science fictional in this or anything else he has written.

This is, in all honesty, a piece of nonsense that never quite makes sense, but it is also a story of constant action and intrigue somewhat in the manner of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The narrator is a second rate actor who makes a living appearing in cheap action films where he is usually the one who gets bumped off. He has been burgled, his car has been damaged, and his latest audition has turned into a fiasco. Then he is offered £1,000 in cash to drive a car up to a remote village in Scotland. He is happy to accept the offer, but ten suspicious things start to happen. He spots the same hitchhiker at different points along the journey; he realizes he is being followed by a mysterious black car; and so on. Then, when he gets to the place where he is supposed to make his delivery, he finds the woman who hired him apparently dead, though her body has disappeared by the time he gets the police to the spot. What follows is a fast-paced adventure set in a bleak Scottish moor. What makes the story is that the way he responds to each new threat, and the complicated plans he puts into effect to solve the puzzle are all derived from the cheap thrillers he has appeared in. The effect is both ludicrous and gripping, in fact the whole thing would make a good comedy drama for TV; indeed, I wonder if it wasn’t originally pitched as such. It is not as subtly done as the spy novels he has written, Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, and the resolution doesn’t quite work, yet the story stands head and shoulders above everything else in this collection precisely because it is a story.


Reprint: The Fall of Frenchy Steiner


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This is another of my In Short columns. It appeared in Vector 285, Spring 2017: Continue reading


A Priest Chronology, updated


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Back at the tail-end of last year I posted an incomplete bibliography of Christopher Priest. Thanks to the comments I received, I was able to fill in a number of gaps. To acknowledge the debt, and show the result of it all, I thought I would post as complete a bibliography as I could (there are some pseudonymous works not included here). Everything – novels, short stories, non-fiction, edited anthologies, novelizations, and two books on which he acted as ghost writer – is arranged in chronological order. Dates in [square brackets] are dates of composition of stories that received their first publication only in Ersatz Wines. As ever, any additions, corrections, or comments would be gratefully received. Continue reading




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The queue for the afternoon showing of Darkest Hour was made up of people who weren’t quite old enough to remember the events of the film. But I think they wanted to believe they were. Half a dozen places ahead of me, one woman clearly had no idea of the title of the film she was here to see and so stood dithering for some time trying to think which screen to choose. At last inspiration struck: “Churchill!” she declared in a glass-shattering yelp that must have been heard in France.

That’s what this is about: just old reliable Winston, the man half the population of Folkestone believes should still be leading the country. Darkest Hour is an entertaining enough film redeemed by a mesmerising performance from Gary Oldman under an ocean of prosthetic makeup. But that is precisely what bothers me about it.

darkest hour

This is the second film about Churchill I’ve seen in the last few months, after Brian Cox’s performance in Churchill.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that climaxes with the “fight them on the beaches” speech, after Dunkirk.

This is the third film I’ve seen in less than a year that turns upon that invidious British myth of Dunkirk, after Dunkirk and Their Finest.

This is the fourth film I’ve seen in less than a year about plucky British wartime spirit, after Churchill and Dunkirk and Their Finest.

And I am getting very concerned about the mythmaking. I assume that the realities of film making mean that all of these films were at least conceived before the Brexit vote. But they are all Brexit films.

These are films about Britain standing alone, and of course being victorious in its isolation. This is Britain being better than, and better apart from, the rest of Europe. These are films about heroism being endemic in the character of ordinary Brits (the word “plucky” is inescapable here, even though in reality it hasn’t been used for decades). And here anyone who talks of negotiation, of talking to the rest of Europe (rather than the commands Churchill gives to his French counterpart) is a weaselly figure who’s the next best thing to a traitor (ie, Halifax in Darkest Hour – I have no particular brief for Halifax, but her is here made into a too-convenient antagonist).

Darkest Hour is full of cringingly bad moments, such as the penchant for beginning or ending key scenes by looking directly down from high overhead, or the idea that even after he was deposed Chamberlain held such power over the entire Parliamentary Conservative Party that he could dictate whether they cheer or remain silent. But the scene that almost had me laughing out loud was when Churchill took the tube. As the girl who showed him how to read the map told us, he was going only one stop. The scene that followed on the tube train was long enough to have travelled all the way around the Circle Line. He found himself in a carriage that was full of the sort of cheerful Cockney cliches that we all remember from far too many British films of the 40s and 50s. They were all polite and smiling and unfailingly bellicose, and the black man even completed Winston’s quotation from “Horatius at the Bridge”, because in 1940 every working class Londoner knew the works of Thomas Babington Macaulay by heart.

Both Darkest Hour and Churchill show Winston boldly taking difficult decisions that will cost lives. There’s a suggestion, pretty explicit in Darkest Hour, that this somehow redeems the tragedy of Gallipoli, because Winston was of course right all along. And such sacrifice is necessary and ultimately good for us. Wipe out the garrison at Calais in what is a pretty futile gesture, and we’re all better for it. And it’s right, of course, because doesn’t Dunkirk show us that even the most ordinary British Tommy will become Herculean for surviving that miserable experience. And doesn’t Their Finest show us that we crave the myth of Dunkirk, not any truth, because the myth makes us all happy and brave.

And don’t all of these films collectively show us that we are better off on our own, unattached to the rest of Europe. And though there may be hard times, the very fact that we’re British means we have grit and pluck and will come through stronger than ever. And anyway, eventually our good friends the Americans will turn up eventually and make it all right again. Yeah, sure!

None of these films is exactly great. Both Cox and Oldman put in remarkable performances as Churchill, Dunkirk has some pretty spectacular film making, and overall Their Finest  has an unassuming levity that makes it easily my favourite of these films. But great, no, the message gets in the way of that.


Reprint: Political Future Fiction


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This was a review essay I wrote for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol 26, issue 1, 2015, of the three-volume Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction under the general editorship of  Kate Macdonald: Continue reading