Abattoirs, Rickshaws, Haunted Dreamers and The City

This is not a review of a novel so much as a recommendation of one – the best new novel I have read this year is Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. It is a first novel of impressive skill and imaginative flair, ambitiously structured and beautifully written, described by the publisher as a city in ten chapters, which in fact sums it up admirably. The central city, which might be London, or Boston, or Tel Aviv, or Melbourne, grows slowly into vivid life as you read the stories of the various people who live there.

Each chapter is different in type and is written in a slightly different style. I shrink from using the word “pastiche”, preferring the idea of literary hommage, as I suspect Mr Thompson intended. Several writers are explicitly summoned, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle among them, but to many readers there will be implied echoes of many more. I sensed the benign hovering presence of J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, M. John Harrison, Iain Sinclair, even W. G. Sebald. Even so, Sam Thompson’s voice is his alone, and this is a major work. It is the sort of book that is so well written it makes you want to declaim passages aloud to the people around you, your nearest and dearest, pedestrians passing your house, other passengers sitting opposite you on the train, anyone will do – so great is the author’s style, so deep his range, so wonderful and rich are his images.

But this amazing young writer appears to have slipped below the radar. Although Communion Town was fairly widely reviewed, the general sense I gained from reading the reviews was that almost none of the critics appeared to understand it, even those who claimed to approve. Several of them referred to the novel as a collection of short stories, which it emphatically is not. The Sunday Times called it a “dreamt-up mish-mash”, the Daily Mail said it was “frustrating”, and the reviewer in the Oxford Times said, “I’ve no idea what it all means”. I hope Mr Thompson was not too discouraged by this sort of evasive and pusillanimous journalism.

Communion Town did make it to the Man Booker longlist, although these days that can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Hope briefly rose that for once a genuinely adventurous and challenging novel would rise to the surface of the literary millpond, but a few weeks later it sank out of sight when the shortlist was announced. The judges missed a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to the arrival of an astonishing new literary talent.

A similar opportunity remains, perhaps, for the judges of the Clarke Award to make amends, partly to make up for the omission by the Booker judges, but also to try to restore confidence in the Award after this year’s dismal effort. Here is a novel of pure slipstream, nothing like traditional science fiction, but an emphatic illustration of the recent argument that the heartland of science fiction writing has become irrelevant through exhaustion. Communion Town is from what Paul Kincaid describes as the borderland of SF, a book on the edge of the fantastic, a celebration of the nature of speculative images and allusive writing and subversive imagery.

Too much to hope that the science fiction world will embrace this novel? China Miéville, for one, has said he likes it and is quoted on the cover of the hardback: “Dreamlike, gnarly and present,” Miéville writes, “Communion Town shifts like a city walker, from street to street.” My dictionary defines “gnarly” as rough, twisted and weather-beaten in appearance; perverse or ill-tempered. I think Miéville probably intended it as a recommendation. I add mine too.

Communion Town is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99, 280 pp, ISBN: 978-0-00-745476-1


I returned from Israel nearly two weeks ago. The period that follows a trip abroad is for me invariably marked by twin evils: firstly, a backlog of stuff to catch up with (in this case, more than 150 emails, plus the need to get my tax accounts done soon), and secondly, a state of lethargy. These two combine with deadly effect. However, here is the news.

It appears The Adjacent has been accepted by Gollancz – Simon Spanton was reassuringly enthusiastic about it, the delivery advance has been paid and the book is scheduled for August next year. Always a relief  to get things done and dusted. Writers do have a pathetic wish to be accepted.

Now I seek, through Gollancz, an American publisher for The Adjacent. No edition of The Islanders ever appeared in the USA, although some copies of the British edition were belatedly distributed. I cannot afford that to happen again, if only for financial reasons. As things stand, just about the only book of mine most people in America have heard of is The Prestige – when I was in Israel someone gave me a copy of the Tor paperback edition to sign, and I discovered that it was in its eleventh reprinting. I like people knowing about The Prestige, but I wrote it two decades ago and I’ve written a lot of stuff since.

Speaking of The Prestige, the two stage versions are both moving forward slowly. I wrote a straight dramatic adaptation in 2011, and that is being produced in Britain. Scheduled, I believe, for an opening next year. Meanwhile, a musical stage version is in preparation in Russia. I wrote the ‘book’ for that a couple of years ago. The straight play and the musical are completely different from each other, incidentally – I regard them as separate works. They are also both different from the film. Christopher Nolan’s film changed the ending and omitted several of the best scenes, so there was a lot left to work with. The straight play is a dark take on the main story, while the musical is a more open and entertaining version. Both are to include live magic performed onstage – the play deals with magic as psychological illusion, the musical treats it as entertainment.

Gollancz have just contracted for reprints of four of my older novels: Indoctrinaire, The Space Machine, A Dream of Wessex and The Quiet Woman. All four of these have been out of print for some time, so I’m glad to think they’ll be available again.

Incidentally, the Gollancz paperback editions of The Glamour and The Extremes usually show as unavailable from internet sellers, but they are in fact, as Nielsens’ database confirms, still available in PoD editions through bookshops. Fugue for a Darkening IslandThe Dream ArchipelagoInverted World, The Affirmation and The Prestige are all still in paperback, and should be in stock.

Next week, as lethargy finally fades, I will be starting work on my next novel.

Old New Land

I have spent the last 9 days in Israel, guest of ICON: The Tel-Aviv International Festival for Science Fiction Imagination and the Future. I spent most of the time in Tel Aviv itself, but was taken to Jerusalem for one eye-opening day. In fact, the whole trip was something of an eye-opener, as I had little idea in advance of what life in Israel would be like. A handful of photographs (four shots out of about four hundred in all) are below.

This is just to say a million thanks to my many new friends in Tel Aviv, notably Uri Aviv, who is the  driving force behind ICON, as well as the team around him: Ayelet Cohen, Shahar Golan and Eliyahu Zigdon. Especial thanks and greetings to Tom Shapira and Izhar Izhaki, my personal ‘minders’, who gave up hours of their own lives to take me sightseeing and other places, walk with me, share meals with me, watch movies with me, and on one notable occasion to catch me with a swift rescuing lurch, as I toppled on a flight of shiny marble stairs in the darkness. Thanks Izhar! Other friends too: notably Ziv Kitaro, his wife Galya, and his prestigious brother Nir. Many more — I think of you all. Here’s to the next time …

This is the sculpture in the plaza next to the Habima Theatre in the centre of Tel Aviv. The theatre itself is outside the picture to the left — the building in the background is the cultural centre, currently being refurbished. The sculptor is Menashe Kadishman:

This is Ibn Gvirol Street, a main road in the centre of town, which runs between the Cinematheque (where ICON took place), and the hotel I was staying in. Crossing this street several times a day was a life-challenging experience, but on this one occasion it was briefly free of traffic:

This is a view of the Arab area of Jerusalem, which we did not enter. In the top left of the picture is a glimpse of the Israeli West Bank Barrier:

Finally, this picture was taken at approximately midday, when the temperature was at least 90º in the shade, with no shade. This was in the compound of the Western Wall: