An American Story

At the beginning of last week I completed and sent in my new novel, An American Story. It is partly set in the USA, partly on an island – but not the Dream Archipelago. I would describe it as being at the speculative end of the spectrum of fantastic literature, rather than in the more central scientific or mythic bands.

As a teaser, here is an image from an old photograph, showing one of the main locations in the story, a place in the USA (unlikely though that might seem at first glance):

 

Here it began, here it ends

In 1962 I was working in the City of London as the world’s worst trainee accountant. I hated the job, and they hated me too. They should have fired me, but they couldn’t because we had signed articles (a binding agreement for five years) that meant I could not leave and they could not fire me. (In 1965, the articles came to an end. They fired me.)

However, early in 1962 I was still there, and a teenage passion for science fiction had suddenly made life more interesting. One of the writers I most admired was Brian Aldiss, who had written several intriguingly unusual short stories, and two or three novels which I thought were pretty good. One of them, Non-Stop, a brilliantly mad and inventive subversion of a trad American science fiction theme (a big spaceship lost in space), had so enthralled me that it had convinced me I should one day like to become a writer too. It took a while to get there, but I never forgot the epiphany of realizing that writing was a human activity that was achievable. Brian Aldiss had also published an anthology called Penguin Science Fiction. (Published by Penguin Books, and full of science fiction, of course.) In the short biography of the editor it mentioned that Mr Aldiss was the president of something called the British Science Fiction Association — I imagined it to be a place where people with mighty minds and vivid imaginations would meet in conclave.

One evening I read a review in the London Evening News of a new novel by John Christopher called The World in Winter. The review gave extravagant praise to this book, but ruined everything by going on to complain that the novel had been marketed as science fiction, which the idiot reviewer described (but not in so many words) as a despicable commercial genre that of course no one could take seriously. This is a customary put-down of science fiction (still in use, no sign yet of its fall from usefulness) deployed by inexperienced reviewers who are trying to impress readers they assume to be even more stupid than themselves. Although I was only 18 I had already spotted this type. I felt weary contempt for whoever it was. Didn’t know what to say.

Not Brian Aldiss, who had also seen this annoying review, and as president of the BSFA wrote a witty letter of complaint to the newspaper, pointing out what a dullard their reviewer was. They published his address at the end of his letter.

I therefore wrote to Mr Aldiss, complimented him on his letter, and timidly asked if it was possible for nonentities like me to join the BSFA, or was it only for writers? Brian Aldiss responded at once, complimented me on having the right attitude, said that of course the BSFA was open to anyone (and passed on the contact address) and went on to urge me to attend the annual science fiction convention, where he would love to meet me and have a good conversation.

It was a marvellous letter for an insecure and bookish teenager to receive. I treasured it and kept it, and to this day it remains the first item in my huge archive of correspondence.

In fact, I was too hard up and too shy to go the SF convention, and did not meet Brian Aldiss in person until about 1965. Then, when he found out my name, he said, ‘I remember you — you wrote me that intelligent letter! Come and have a drink!’ It was the first moment of a friendship that was to last, with the usual ups and downs of any friendship between two difficult men, for more than half a century.

This is a photograph taken in June 1970, by Margaret, Brian Aldiss’s second wife. Brian had generously invited me down to their house in Oxfordshire to celebrate the publication of my first novel Indoctrinaire. Also there was Charles Monteith, who was not only my editor at the publishers Faber & Faber, he was Brian’s too. He had been responsible for buying and publishing all the early Aldiss books, including those short stories I had admired so much, and the fabulous bravura of Non-Stop.

Today I learned that Brian had died, one day after his 92nd birthday. When someone has had such a long life, living to a great age, the end will not come as a surprise to those around, but none the less this news came as a profound and upsetting shock. I was privileged to write a long obituary for the Guardian, but a formal article is not the appropriate place to express fondness and gratitude for everything. His work shines out as an example to us all, a standard to strive to equal. His professionalism was legendary. His conversation was something to stay up all night for, and his sense of fun was marvellous. He is irreplaceable.

 

Before I forget

Since the beginning of April I have been working on a new novel. It has occupied almost all my interest and most of my time since then, so I have rather neglected writing anything here. The novel will be titled An American Story, and I hope and plan to deliver it in the next few weeks.

(It did have a “The” title for a while, but I began to think it was time to put that to rest for a while. Also put aside, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever, is the Dream Archipelago. I have not lost interest in either of these signature marks, but they were indeed starting to feel like signature marks. I hate being pigeonholed, so An American Story will be something new and different.)

Something old: my most recently published novel, The Gradual, is now out in paperback in both the USA and the UK (Titan and Gollancz respectively), and I have a new short story about to appear in an anthology called 2084, from the indie publisher Unsung Stories. This book is a celebration of George Orwell’s best known novel, a hundred years on. Although I rate Nineteen Eighty-Four as a genuine classic, I believe Orwell’s most important work, at least in terms of the great influence he has had on those of us who follow him, lies in his non-fiction, notably his social and political essays. My story is therefore called “Shooting an Episode”.

My small, specialist literary agency (est. 1981) has recently been given a refreshing boost of new legitimacy in that I am now representing the Belfast-based writer, Sam Thompson. Sam is the real thing: a new and thrilling literary writer of genuine and original talent. His first book Communion Town was a brilliant and radical exegesis of ten modes of fantastic fiction. (The subtitle was: A City in Ten Chapters.) It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in its year but went no further. As is often the case its fascination with the fantastic reduced its chances of being treated as a serious work. (Familiar problem.) It should have walked into the Booker shortlist, and been a strong contender for the main prize — but that was not to be. One day it will be recognized for what it was, and the Booker judges for what they were. Anyway, Sam has now produced a second novel called Jott, and we have sold it to John Murray in the UK. It will be out in the summer of next year.

Last month I recorded a 35-minute unedited interview with BBC Radio Scotland, in their Good Morning, Scotland strand. No doubt most people missed this (not everyone), but you can catch up with it here. Warning: it starts suddenly, and there’s a huge photo to get past.

Coming soon:

Nina and I will be joint guests of honour at Fantasticon in Copenhagen, 2nd-3rd September.

I will be at the Gollancz Festival, held in Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, on 4th November. Tickets and details here.

On 13th November I shall be doing a reading and a Q&A at Glasgow University, in their series of Creative Conversations.

And on 25th November I shall be at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, giving a talk at the conference Weird Fiction and J. G. Ballard. (I don’t appear to have a link for that yet.)

I hope I can get the new novel delivered before most of that lot kicks in …

Alan Kelk

Alan Kelk in 1964

Alan Kelk has died. He taught at my school for thirty-seven years, although I knew him for only four of them.

He taught me two things. The first was to love and respect the English language, a most valuable possession which I have cherished ever since.

The second was a piece of advice: “If thou canst fight, wear a big ‘at.” Although I never quite grasped the full extent of this, I have found it invariably useful in difficult times.

RIP Alan!

An Elephant in the Room (really)

Since the beginning of April this year I have been absorbed in writing a new novel, which has led to a general paucity of entries here. It has also meant that I have neglected to mention something rather unusual and (for me at least) thrilling. The MSU Broad Gallery (patrons Eli and Edythe Broad) has mounted an exhibition of artwork inspired by my novel The Prestige. It is called The Transported Man.

The curator of the exhibition is Marc-Olivier Wahler, previously director and chief curator of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the gallery is at Michigan State University in Detroit. It opened on April 29 and continues until October 22. I have not seen the exhibition myself, nor have I even seen the catalogue, but I know that M. Wahler has been planning this for nearly a decade. Originally it was intended to be mounted at Palais de Tokyo, but he has recently moved to the USA and is now Director at the Broad.

Information about the gallery is at the Michigan State University website, there is a review of the exhibition at The Detroit News, and an extended interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler here. I am unlikely to be able to get away from my desk until I have delivered this novel, but if you are near enough to Detroit to visit the gallery I should be greatly interested to know what the exhibition is like.

A world disaster

That does it – Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord on climate change.

The American novelist Lionel Shriver recently reported a conversation she had with fellow American Sarah Churchwell, who ‘posited a theory gaining mainstream currency’. I had not heard this before, and have pleasure in quoting part of it:

Many of Trump’s characteristics point towards dementia: forgetfulness (leaving an executive order photo-op without remembering to sign the order); volatility, irritability, impulsivity and paranoia; anxiety about stairs and inclines (re: gripping Theresa May’s hand); poor concentration and degraded syntax: reliance on placeholders (‘very, very, very’ buys time), small vocabulary, fragmented sentences. If still arrogant in 1988, [when Trump was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey] he was lucid, coherent – almost articulate. He didn’t sound like an idiot. He could talk. He can’t talk now.

If the US congress doesn’t have the guts to impeach this appalling man, maybe they should consider committing him to a dementia ward. Perhaps that’s unfair on other dementia patients, who would have to suffer his endless post-massively-ketchuped-hamburger farts. It wouldn’t take long to build a special secure unit for him alone.

Imaginales, Épinal

I shall be at Imaginales, in the Vosges town of Épinal, from the middle of this current week: May 18 – 21. My schedule, as sent to me in advance by Lionel Davoust, my brilliant and irreplaceable French interpreter, is as follows:

Thursday 18th
14h, venue: Magic Mirrors 2
The wonderful journeys of reading

Friday 19th
17h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Time and its travels

Saturday 20th
10h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Post-apocalyptic worlds

12h30, lunch with readers

Sunday 21th
17h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Worldbuilding and worldbuilders

Lionel is himself a writer of great popularity and esteem in France, and I am always amazed by and thankful for the huge amount of time he gives up at events like Imaginales to translate for me. He makes even my most desperate or garbled comment sound elegant and interesting.

If by any chance you can be in Épinal this week, I should love to meet you and say hello. Go to the book tent: this is where we lurk when not in the Magic Mirrors.

Buy and Read This Book NOW

The title is On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, written by Timothy Snyder and published in the UK by Bodley Head. It is terrifying and illuminating, and in my view it must be read as widely as possible.

You can order a copy of the paperback here, or download a Kindle edition here. Better still, buy a copy from your nearest bookstore.

George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Professor Snyder’s short book (a mere 126 pages) is a succinct and up-to-the minute reminder of the past, and therefore a timely analysis of the real dangers manifested by the present occupant of the White House. Nowhere in the book does he mention the name of the President, but it is of course clear exactly who he means. The past of which Snyder reminds us includes the events in Germany and Italy during the fascist era, and in Russia during the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.

On Tyranny - SnyderSnyder’s twenty lessons cover some familiar ground, at least in the early pages, but all are written with great clarity. The book gains weight and power as it proceeds. I was particularly impressed by his analysis of the perversion of facts and language, and the Orwellian doublespeak in which journalists, judges, political opponents, senators and almost everyone else are suborned. Even Orwell did not think of “fake facts”.

Snyder is also acerbic about Brexit. His critique of what is happening in this country now, this month, this week, last week, strikes me as a new insight, original and extremely alarming. Even if you aren’t worried stiff by the current US President, the Brexit passage alone will energize a whole new area of dread and dismay in your soul, especially perhaps if you voted to Leave.

Snyder cites a writer I had never heard of before, Victor Klemperer, a German scholar and chronicler. Born in 1881, a Jew but also a German patriot, Klemperer remained in Germany throughout most of the second world war. From his daily experiences Klemperer analysed in his journal the way in which Adolf Hitler and his Nazi appointees subverted language to reject legitimate opposition. (E.g. presuming to speak for “the people” without any kind of constituency.) Klemperer said there were four modes of address associated with Hitler:

1. Open hostility to verifiable reality, presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.
2. Shamanistic incantation, endlessly repeating fictions to make them plausible until they become familiar shorthand – examples include “Germany was stabbed in the back” and “The Jewish conspiracy” – and in modern times “Crooked Hillary”, “Build that wall”, etc.
3. Magical thinking, or openly embracing contradiction. E.g. boost military spending, renew the infrastructure, eliminate the national debt, and also promise to cut taxes, all somehow at once.
4. Misplaced faith. E.g., he alone can solve all the problems, unquestioning belief in him as a leader and salvation, a self-image of himself as an outsider from the political class, an ordinary man who has a chance to speak for other ordinary people.

Reading this, it was quite a wrench to remember that Klemperer was talking about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and not the ignorant and dangerous lout who in the present day has taken power in the USA.

Snyder describes how despotism takes hold, the tyrant opportunistically using some unforeseen disaster or violent event to enhance power. Hitler’s hold on Germany was confirmed after the fire at the Reichstag, Putin used terrorist outrages to climb the ladder of power in Russia. This sort of thing is what I myself fear most, simply because it is likely to happen. The President has shown himself to be a weak and ineffectual leader, one after another of his executive orders nullified by the checks and balances of the American system … he covers his sulk by going away to play golf with his rich friends, then jets down to his Florida playground. But what would be the consequences for democracy of another 9/11, of a major natural disaster, of another Hurricane Katrina, of a new financial crash?

Read this book soon. A year from now you might not be able to.

One Afternoon

“Utah Beach”

Some forty years ago I sold an anthology of new short stories and novellas to my then publishers, Faber & Faber. It was called Anticipations (a nod to H. G. Wells), and Faber published an attractive hardcover in 1978. An American edition from Scribner followed in the same year. Paperbacks followed, as did a few translations around the world. It contained eight new stories by Ian Watson, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, myself, Harry Harrison, Thomas M. Disch, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss (I arranged the stories in reverse alphabetical order by author).

Anticipations gained some favourable reviews, but its life was short and it has not been available for years, although several of the stories were re-anthologized or included by some of the writers in collections of their own. Now that we have finished moving house, and I have a whole room dedicated to storing the papers, books, contracts, cuttings, etc., accumulated over the years, I have started looking through the immense heap trying to impose order. Small and forgotten surprises have emerged from the chaos of old files and folders, including the photo above.

It was sent to me by J. G. Ballard, after I had bought the story he submitted: “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”. (The story was later included in his collection The Venus Hunters, 1980.) The photograph arrived in a small envelope, plastered with low-value postage stamps – a total of 6½p, in 1p, 1½p and ½p stamps. I think he did this habitually, as several other letters I received from him arrived similarly covered in stamps. On the back of the photo he had written “Utah Beach”.

Essex Book Festival, 25th March

I shall be at the Essex Book Festival on Saturday 25th March, in conversation with Sarah Brown about The Gradual, and other books.

The venue is Lord Ashcroft Building, Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford CM1 1SQ – the event is from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm. More details, of course, can be found here. See you on the day, I hope?