American stories

Here is the cover from Gollancz for my next novel An American Story. It will be published on 20th September this year:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The visual approach is interestingly different from the French interpretation of the same book, as is the title (see below), but a certain theme is consistent. On this subject I merely say: the American story is not what might seem apparent from this thematic consistency, and the consequences are the real story …

Last week I was in Oxford to contribute to a celebration of the life and work of Brian Aldiss, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. Other participants included Robin Straus (Brian’s American literary agent), Samuel Fanous of the Bodleian Library (repository of the Aldiss papers), Thomas Lodge (actor, Brian’s grandson via Wendy Aldiss), Petronilla Whitfield (actor, and frequent collaborator with Brian), and Michael Moorcock (in a message read by Marcus Gipps). There was also an ancient television interview with Brian, where he spoke amusingly about masturbation, and a song from Ella Fitzgerald, “Cow Cow Boogie”. A second panel discussion followed, with Philip Pullman, Claire Armitstead and Sophie Ratcliffe, more general in nature, about the relationship between literature and genre.

Speaking of literature and genre, I have just read The Booker and the Best, a Kindle Single from Nicholas Clee. This raises the question of why genre writing is not taken seriously by the perceived literary establishment, and why science fiction and thrillers, in particular, never make it to the shortlists of the major literary prizes. (One could point out the paradox that Brian Aldiss, one of the finest literary stylists in the English language, was never a contender in these prizes.) Clee doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but his discussion of the problem is interesting and involving, and full of good sense. It only costs a quid from Amazon, so do grab a copy.

French consequences

Here is the cover illustration for my next novel, from my French publishers Lunes d’encre (an imprint of Denoël). The title in English (An American Story) cannot be used in France, as there is a pre-existing book with that title in French. I like the variant title almost as much, as the book is essentially about consequences.

Publication date will be towards the end of this year, but it is hoped that advance copies will be available while I am working in Paris, in September.

An American Story will be published in the UK by Gollancz, on 20 September.

I have recently delivered another book to Gollancz: a narrated short story collection called Episodes. No publication date has yet been agreed.

 

Ursula

Bereavement is a variant of ‘bereft’ – we are all bereft by the loss of Ursula Le Guin. She was a supreme writer and thinker, one of the greatest of all American writers and perhaps the best ever to have graced us with her fantasy and science fiction. She was a better writer than any of us, past or present – we have lost our benchmark of excellence.

I would feel presumptuous to claim Ursula as a personal friend, but I knew her for much of the period, in the mid-1970s, when she and her husband were living in London. She was not as famous then, but she was just as sage, perceptive, sharp-witted, kind. She was a huge influence on me during that still-formative period, and her dry comments on the few things of mine she read were shocking in their power of illumination, but also stimulating and encouraging. Whether she liked what I wrote, or not, was always irrelevant. She understood.

One of my short stories, ‘The Negation’, is a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her. A sequel to that story, set a few years later, appears briefly in The Islanders.

Her recent book, Words are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016), contains some of her best essays on literature. It includes one called ‘Genre: A Word only a Frenchman Could Love’, which is the definitive analysis of the way fantastic literature is misunderstood by those who describe it as ‘genre fiction’. Everyone the least interested in what she wrote (and also we who follow, trying to keep up) should buy and read this book. It is a fine and sustained argument – humane, eloquent, sometimes funny – expressing the beauty and importance of the fantastic.

Ursula’s acceptance speech in 2014 for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a.k.a. the National Book Award) is included in Words are My Matter, under the title ‘Freedom’. It can be read here. It sums her up perfectly – not all of her, but the huge bit of her that was devoted to books and literature.

We have lost Ursula Le Guin, a nice woman, a brilliant, generous, sweet-natured, liberal, skilled, inimitable woman. Now we have to go on without her, bereft.

Vision Back On

About five years ago my then optician peered closely, and said, “You are developing cataracts.” He advised there was nothing that needed to be done, nothing to worry about. Two years later came the same warning – still nothing needed to be done. Last year another optician said, “You have cataracts.”

By this time I knew: when I looked at bright lights they were surrounded by haloes, daylight from windows tended to dim the rest of the room. Reading small print in books was becoming a problem. Cinemas invariably projected films slightly out of focus. Driving still felt safe enough, unless I needed to read direction signs – as by this time we were living in Devon, where most of the road signs are still the old-fashioned wooden sort, that sometimes led to confusion. One night, driving for many miles in thick fog between the endless high hedges of Devon lanes, I became totally lost. I was ready to have my cataracts fixed.

But then it was explained to me that the NHS administrators in England required a certain threshold of foggy vagueness to be met before I could be referred for an operation, and I was still a long way below that. Six months later the result was the same. I did not meet the NHS threshold. I continued to blunder onwards, sometimes missing things, bumping into things at other times.

We moved to Scotland, a new optician and a slightly different version of the NHS. This optometrist scoffed at the whole idea of a threshold, and promptly referred me to the local hospital.

Last week (after a couple of months of nervy anticipation), the deed was done. Although I would not say I enjoyed the day of the operation, the pleasantness and professional skills of the nurses and doctors at the Golden Jubilee Hospital on Clydeside made it painless, swift and effective. Like many people who have direct experience of the NHS, which these days is endlessly at risk from the mendacity of politicians, I believe it to be a fantastic service of which the rest of the world should be envious. (Note to Trump supporters: it’s completely free at point of use, it’s open to everyone resident in the UK, it’s terrific.)

The next day I wandered around the town, soaking in the detail, my sense of visual perspective regained. Above all the colours: not just brighter and more intense, although they were, but the subtleties of colour, the shades, the contrasts. The town was under a silvery light, every tiny wave on the surface of the firth was sharply delineated. Oh, joy!

Next year, my other eye will be repaired. I can hardly wait. Here is an approximation of the improvement I am experiencing:

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 …

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.

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.