Paul Kincaid with a few thoughts on being involved with the John W. Campbell Memorial Award…

Through the dark labyrinth

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…

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On wanting to be astonished by science fiction

boneI’ve been trying to find the perfect way into a series of posts about what I’m grandly calling my ‘critical practice’. The trouble is, I’ve been reading so many different articles lately, and thinking ‘oh that fits with X, and I need to work that into this piece somehow’ I’ve managed to both comprehensively distract myself and stall myself when it comes to writing down my thoughts. It’s a known issue – I’ve been exasperating people with it for years. So, rather than striving to encapsulate Speller’s Grand Unified Theory of Something or Other in one neat, unimpeachable blog post, it seems simpler to invite readers to join me on my meandering journey to achieve a better understanding of what it is I think I’m doing when I sit down to write about science fiction and fantasy.

But even before that, I have a problem. It is a problem I’ve had for a long time but it is only within the last year that I’ve realised I really need to address it in some way. Those of you who have been reading my critical writing for a while will know I tend to employ a very subjective definition of sf and fantasy, deriving from the ‘what I point to’ school of thought. Or, as I sometimes term it, ‘stuff Maureen likes’. It is by no means ideal but over the years it has accommodated my preference for the kind of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and takes more pleasure in subverting or ignoring genre tropes than in reinforcing them.

Yet it is not enough to rely on this when you talk to people who are not familiar with your tastes. But neither do I want to be one of those people who defines science fiction or fantasy in excruciating taxonomic detail, working through layers of subgenre to achieve the perfect description of an individual text. It’s one thing to classify living organisms but I’ve never been entirely convinced that applying this ‘scientific’ approach to a piece of fiction is remotely effective.

Or, rather, it might have a limited use in making the broadest distinctions in subject matter – space opera, or military sf, for example – but I can’t help thinking that the moment you begin categorising titles according to the minutiae of content, it is possibly time to move on. Of course, taxonomy, classification, categorisation, call it what you will, brings with it a pleasing sense of rigour, because it is science of a sort, and as we know ‘science’ is good, and especially pertinent to science fiction. Except, of course, that this is not science but performance. This is not deep textual analysis but prescription, boundary-building, gate-keeping, exclusion, scent-marking, and so on. Indeed, I’d say there’s an unsettling implication of a desire to avoid contamination. I’d go so far as to say it is a form of literary germophobia, and something far more pernicious even than the endless debate about the differences between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. Hint: there are fewer than you think.

I’m always slightly surprised, though frankly relieved, that no one has attempted an Aarne-Thompson-style classification system for tropes in science fiction (I’m discounting TV Tropes at this stage, for obvious reasons). Perhaps the nearest we come to this is Gary K Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction, listing thirty-three definitions of science fiction. I’ve read them but none of them seemed to be entirely what I was looking for, and to manufacture one of my own would be to provoke just one more round of discussion on a topic I have now devoted five paragraphs to trying not to talk about. Well done, me.

It was only when I read a piece by Adam Roberts last autumn that I realised I might have been coming at the problem from the wrong angle entirely. That there was another way of thinking about science fiction and fantasy, and it had been staring me in the face all along. Adam’s blog post is entitled ‘How I Define “Science Fiction”’, but it’s not necessarily what you think. Which is in part why it caught my attention.

Adam begins by discussing what he calls ‘the most famous jump-cut in cinema’, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, the ape man throws the bone into the air, and just as it begins to return to earth it is replaced by a shot of a bone-shaped spacecraft. Adam says:

…this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent, even though I’m not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates.

In other words, it would appear that the beauty lies in part in the observer’s inability to properly articulate what that image fully represents, even though the observer, here Adam, experiences the meaning. The image defies interpretation even as it invites it. In fact, I’d happily argue that 2001 is full of such moments. It is visually one of the most beautiful sf films I know, but another thing that distinguishes it, and which is worth taking hold of now, as I pursue the discussion, is how little the film itself engages in interpretation. The elements that are most clearly remembered, I’d suggest, are HAL’s attempt to ‘save’ the mission, and his subsequent demise, because this is fully explained, and the hyperspace sequence, because it is not explained at all, only experienced. The rest is open to interpretation, and therein lies its interest.

I’m interested too in Adam’s difficulty in laying out what that sequence means to him. Words are all he has, and are indeed his stock-in-trade as writer and academic, but here somehow they are not, perhaps can never be, quite enough to explicate that experience. Or, maybe, they are too much. Might it be that when Adam starts to try to explain the sequence something is being lost? Obviously, because words are all I have too, I’m going to struggle to fill in what it is Adam cannot articulate, but I wonder if it might go along the lines of the image being so ‘right’, so perfectly wrought, so replete with potential meaning, it almost seems wrong to even begin to essay an explanation.

And if that is true, perhaps I should stop here, now, and never write another thing.

Except, of course, as Adam continued to pursue his argument, so shall I continue with my discussion. I can’t speak for Adam, but if I’m talking about my critical practice, it’s driven as much as anything by a need to make sense, however imperfectly, of the words and images I encounter. So, that is one thing I now know for sure.

Adam’s point is that the ‘bone’ image works ‘not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically [original italics]’. It actualises the ‘vertical “leap” from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy’. For Adam, then, sf is ‘more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition’.

This particularly catches my attention because of my own reading background. As a child I read fantasy rather than sf. Such sf as was available to me consisted primarily of Heinlein juveniles and things like the Tom Swift stories. Consequently, sf presented itself very strongly as being ‘for boys’, which probably wouldn’t have concerned me as I tended to run a mile from anything presented strongly as ‘for girls’ (I had no interest whatsoever in the Chalet School, for example). But insofar as I tried most things that came my way, I’m fairly sure I tried Heinlein and Tom Swift and discarded them for one very simple reason – they bored me. They tried to educate me rather than entertain me.

I definitely read some Andre Norton – Moon of Three Rings sticks in my memory, and I think that may be as much because it presented itself as more fantastical than didactic. Slightly later, I read Wyndham but never really thought of it as sf because of the obviously terrestrial settings, then read Foundation to please a friend at school, and hated it. It was only when I started reading Le Guin in my early twenties that I found science fiction that possessed what we might, at this point, think of as poetry. All of which is a slightly overblown way of explaining why I’ve never had much truck with the idea of sf serving as a way of getting children into science, or whatever, so take that, Hugo Gernsback. This is not to say that it might not do so as a corollary, but I still don’t believe that is what science fiction or fantasy are really about. But back to the discussion.

So, let’s run with Adam’s notion that ‘science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it’. There is a part of me that wants to say, but isn’t that true of all literature, in that even if it is avowedly mimetic, it cannot be fully mimetic, otherwise we’d all be lost in some kind of Borgesian nightmare, all labyrinths, forking paths and no opportunity to forget anything. But seriously, while all fiction is to some extent mimetic, some fiction is more mimetic than it is metaphorical. Unless one wants to argue that some science fiction is mimicking other science fiction … and am I the only person stuck on this solipsistic merry-ground. I do hope not.

But this does bring me to a genuine problem I have with science fiction, or certain strains thereof. The painstaking extrapolation from known to unknown, based on what we currently know about the world, the rivet-counting, the insistence that X cannot happen without Y, and so on. For years I thought I could only be a good science fiction critic if I assiduously read New Scientist every week, and for a long time I did, and watched Horizon (when it was still good), and even made it all the way through A Brief History of Time. Which was, I think now, to miss the point somewhat. It’s one thing to be a science geek, and I like to be informed about science, and am genuinely interested in the history of science, but if I can only fully appreciate science fiction by putting myself through this sort of training programme, then possibly something is wrong. Because it really doesn’t matter how rigorous the science is if a science fiction novel actively sucks as fiction. And bluntly, a lot of it does, even now. A novel that would rather you fawned over the accurate use of equations rather than appreciating the storytelling as a unified thing is not a novel I’m especially interested in reading. But then, that’s not the kind of science fiction I’m interested in writing about.

Large deviations from what is permissible in science fiction are, Adam suggests, more liable to bounce the reader ‘out of her reading experience’. I take that point then I found myself thinking, well why not? Why shouldn’t the experience of reading science fiction be as ‘alien’ (not about aliens) as the concept of sf itself? Suppose we take that to mean that sf invites some sort of detachment from the truly mimetic. Adam invokes Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief; it seems to me that surely the very notion of sf is to invite the willing suspension of disbelief, to think ‘what if’ in the broadest way possible. What does it say about readers if they don’t want that? And yet, too often, I suspect they really don’t. Half the problem with ideas such as ‘the genre heartland’ is that they reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it. The city on the hill is transformed into a citadel. None shall enter, none shall leave. Another version of M John Harrison’s ‘clomping foot of nerdism’, perhaps. Or, as Adam suggests, while ‘worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text […] the point of sf is not its system’. Certainly, I don’t think it should be all about the system.

The point [of sf] is that it transports us – that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way.

Good science fiction should, Adam suggests, achieve ‘escape velocity’. It should achieve ‘rapture’. It would, I think, be tiring if all science fiction were to go for the full-blown Sense of Wonder, though it would be wonderful if more of it even aspired to that condition. I also really like the way that Adam equates the idea of Sense of Wonder with the Sublime, prompting us to look back to Romanticism. The concept of the Sublime has been overlooked of late and I’d love to see it come back into critical play. But Adam is making a serious point – where is the science fiction that is ‘wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating’. Or ‘at least flavoured with Strange’. And this, which should be tattooed on the forehead of every science fiction writer, in mirror image so they can read it when they look at themselves in the morning:

[g]reat sf can never situate itself inside its readers’ comfort zones, though commercially popular sf can and often does.


We encounter a bump in the road at this point. Not all sf is great. It’s the way things are. On the other hand, not all less-than-great sf is actively bad. It’s just ‘not great’. Often, the most rewarding things to write about are those which have aspired to greatness but, for whatever reason, have not quite achieved it. The gaps in the carapace are inevitably far more revealing than a smooth, shiny surface. As the oyster requires grit to make a pearl, so a critic often requires less than sublime science fiction on which to work. There is also science fiction that isn’t necessarily great but does what it does incredibly well. We might call that commercial sf. It’s very saleable, and while it may not be elevating it’s very satisfying to read. Maybe it’s the difference between a rare and exotic vintage and a decent workaday wine. You yearn for the one but happily accept the other because it’s fine to drink on a daily basis.

But having said all that, there’s a difference between science fiction that is trying to do something interesting and not quite making it, or that knows what it’s doing and does it to the absolute utmost of its ability, and science fiction that refuses to even look for the way out of the comfort zone. I’ve already mentioned the phrase ‘genre heartland’. It may be an attraction for some but to me it smacks of ‘comfort’ and ‘more of the same’, and I’m not here for either of those things in my reading or writing.

Returning to Adam’s post, for now I’m skirting the discussion of Roman Jakobson’s theories – that’s not an area I want to go into at present – but I find the metaphorical model of science fiction that Adam lays out much more to my taste than the metonymic model that holds so many of us in its thrall.

I want to be surprised by science fiction. Always. I want to be surprised by everything I read, but science fiction and fantasy more than most kinds of fiction seem to offer such a promise, only to all too often snatch it away at the last moment. Having acknowledged that need, that desire, for metaphor, the sense of wonder, even the barest nod to the sublime, this seems to provide a starting point for how I might write about science fiction and fantasy literature in the future.


Before and After

Paul Kincaid on prequels and sequels.

Through the dark labyrinth

There is a congruence in the latest issue of the London Review of Books (4 January 2018) that I find interesting and instructive.

In the final paragraph of his review of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, Colin Burrow remarks:

A great work of fantasy involves testing and advancing the physical and moral laws of a new world; and a great part of the pleasure of reading a book set in an alternative world lies in seeing an author discovering a possibility that stretches the boundaries of the imagined world without wrecking its internal coherence. Writing a prequel to that kind of elastic imagining is exceptionally hard, because so many of the rules have already been invented and cannot be subjected to creative strain, let alone broken. (8)

On the facing page, almost exactly parallel to this passage, in a review of Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s sort-of sequel to

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2017 in Review

Paul Kincaid being rather more efficient about summarising his year’s reading than I ever manage.

Through the dark labyrinth

It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.

2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.

Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks…

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New year, new plans

Today is the seventh birthday of my blog, Paper Knife. I’ve not worked at it consistently over the years, and in 2017 I began to wonder whether it might be time to do the decent thing and close down the blog altogether, because I had become just so dissatisfied with it. But somehow I can’t quite let go, because no matter how unfocused it’s been, I’ve put a lot of work into Paper Knife and I can’t bring myself to just snuff it out.

And much has happened in the last few months. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of discussion about critical writing outside the academy, and whether there is any point to it, or even any need for it. I’ve watched with dismay as various people have represented reviewing as being purely about promoting books on behalf of authors and publishers, or as a means of assessing fictions’ suitability for being nominated for awards. And I keep thinking, no, no, that is not at all what critical writing is about. Being a part of the Shadow Clarke project in 2017 was also something of an eye-opener when it came to dealing with people’s responses to critical writing.

I’ve seen a lot of other things too. So many things, not least among them yet more ridiculous lists of 10 sf books you should all have read, filled with books by old guys alongside Ursula Le Guin as the token woman. Naming no names but if Andy Weir’s interview in the New York Times comes to mind, then … ok, I’m thinking about that Andy Weir interview. He’s not the only one, of course; he’s just more visible than most.

I also saw the people asking why those of us mocking that interview couldn’t just accept that some people like that kind of thing. And that, so far as it goes, is an entirely reasonable point. The problem with so many of these lists, however, is that they don’t reflect the state of contemporary science fiction and fantasy, or what most people are actually reading, although they generally say an awful lot about what the list compilers were reading when they were twelve, which in many instances is what their fathers were reading when they were twelve. There is perhaps some sense that these texts are foundational, and maybe they were once, if you’re a reader of a certain age, or still are if you’re studying science fiction. But if you’re a new reader, just interested in reading some really good science fiction recommendations? Well, I personally wouldn’t start from those lists.

Or, to put it another way, when I was twelve, I was reading Lord of the Rings, the available fantastic works of Lord Dunsany and William Morris, and Hope Mirrlees’ incomparable Lud-in-the-Mist, but I wouldn’t dream of offering up any of those as the ‘best fantasy’ were I asked to compile a list today, with the possible exception of Lud-in-the-Mist, which I genuinely do think everyone should read because it is such a startlingly good fantasy. So much has happened since then it would make far more sense to point new readers at some good contemporary fantasy and let people find their own way back.

One morning a while ago, I woke up and found Robert Heinlein was trending on Twitter, which seemed a little strange as I was fairly sure he had already been dead for some time. It turned out that Weir’s list had generated a lot of discussion about which authors one should read when starting out in sf, and various writers, most visibly Seanan McGuire, had queried this insistence that one absolutely needed read the old guys. For some people this was a new conversation but for many of us it was yet one more iteration of an old conversation that became much more visible because McGuire and others play a strong social media game. The conclusion, though, seemed much the same – you don’t have to read the old guys to enjoy reading science fiction. And yet that feeling persists. Why is that, I wonder?

It’s a matter I’ll come back to in the future, I’m sure, but for now I’ll just note that it prompted me to say that, were I in a position to teach a class on sf and fantasy, I’d love to teach one called ‘Beyond 2001’, which would only discuss work published in the twenty-first century, with a heavy emphasis on work by women and writers of colour, and as much work as possible from outside the usual US/UK publishing axis. A number of people responded very enthusiastically to this idea but given I am unlikely to ever be in a position to teach such a course, it seemed doomed before it even got going.

But thinking about it later, I realised I could do quite a lot with this concept, and at the same time respond to another discussion that’s been going on, about the way in which we write critically about short fiction. Or, rather, how we don’t. Here, I’m thinking about the very inadequate reviews of short fiction on sites like Rocket Stack Rank, by no means the only site to devote itself to trying to apply some sort of order to the vast outpouring of short fiction, but possibly the most nakedly egregious in the way it sets about its self-appointed task. This is not reviewing; it’s triaging material for those who want to nominate for awards. Again, I’m not going to have that discussion in detail right now but ranking stories according to their nomination potential, a process that not coincidentally allows the ‘reviewers’ to bring into play a slew of exceedingly distasteful personal prejudices, is not critical writing; it’s barely even reviewing as I understand it.

So I have come up with a new plan for Paper Knife. During 2018, I’m going to devote more space to writing about sf and fantasy published after 2001, and also focus on discussing short fiction in depth. I’m also going to talk more about my own critical practice, because getting involved in the Shadow Clarke project made me realise that there is a lot I’ve begun to take for granted about my own work, and it feels like the time has come to reassess what I’m doing.

I’m excited about this plan, and looking forward to getting down to work. It’s been a rough couple of years for me personally, but these last few months things have begun to fall into place and, even despite the world outside looking like a dumpster fire right now, I feel a little more optimistic about life generally than I have done for a long time.

In which case, it is clearly time to write.

Looking for Nan Shepherd – Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, by Charlotte Peacock

I had been looking forward to reading Charlotte Peacock’s Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd (Galileo Publishers, 2017) , because I was curious about Nan Shepherd, best known these days for a slim book called The Living Mountain. Nan Shepherd was, among other things, a walker, and she loved best to walk in the Cairngorms. Hers was an intense engagement with landscape, and this was distilled into The Living Mountain; her writings about the mountains have an almost hallucinatory quality to them – I suppose one might call it ‘spiritual’, although I gather that Nan Shepherd herself might have disavowed this precise term. Maybe ‘animistic’ is the word, though I think she might have rejected that too. Call The Living Mountain then a prose-poem of a very distinctive kind.

The Living Mountain had an odd publishing history. Shepherd was a poet and a successful novelist in the early 1930s, associated with the Scottish Modernists, though seemingly not one for literary movements herself, and in many respects a reluctant writer who didn’t particularly desire fame. She wrote novels until she stopped writing novels. She wrote The Living Mountain in the 1940s but couldn’t get it published at that time so simply put it away in a drawer. This was, we learn, very like Nan. For most of her adult life she worked at Aberdeen’s Teacher Training Centre, lecturing on English literature, apparently extremely good at her job, much loved by her students, but saying nothing about her life as a writer. The Living Mountain was finally published in 1977 to very little notice, but much later, well after Shepherd’s death, acquired a new fame, mostly I think as a result of Robert Macfarlane writing about it so extensively. Certainly, it’s where I first came across her name, to the point where I started to read her work because I was so sick of everyone else going on about it, and that is never a good beginning.

So here I make my confession. I liked The Living Mountain well enough but it did not capture my imagination in the way I’d been assured it would. If anything, I was slightly baffled by the adoration showered on the book, and a little disappointed that it had not worked its magic upon me. It may be that I simply read it at the wrong moment, read it too literally, or that I was so primed for miracles by the time I did read it my hopes and expectations were bound to go unmet. Whatever it was, nothing happened. It may happen later – and I will read it again, quietly, without telling anyone – but if it does I will never have that pure unmediated moment of recognition.

What did happen was that I had bought The Living Mountain in an omnibus edition with Shepherd’s three novels, The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, and A Pass in the Grampians, and they really did hit the spot, over and over. I was astonished by the power of her storytelling, the vividness of her characterisation, and the way she addressed women’s place in the world, and wondered why I’d not heard of these novels before. According to this biography, Shepherd didn’t think that much of her novels, or much about them once they were done; if that’s true, it’s a shame, as I think they are amazing. What might have happened, for example, if Virago or The Women’s Press had picked up her work back in the 1980s, and what a pity they didn’t.

Instead, Nan Shepherd is known to us now primarily through The Living Mountain,  and … and I don’t know quite how to put this, but it makes me uneasy … somehow that book seems to have become the property of men. It’s coincidental, I don’t doubt, but I’ve been struck by how often I’ve seen Shepherd’s book written about by men, recommended by men, praised by men, and only ever the one book, and how little she is mentioned by women. It may be the nature of the bubble in which I exist in the world, and that elsewhere women are eagerly discussing her writing, but … I don’t know … I would have thought I’ve have heard something by now. The appearance of Charlotte Peacock’s book is therefore all the more exciting because it is a book about Nan Shepherd, written by a woman, and one seemingly familiar with The Living Mountain, although, almost inevitably, Peacock herself came to Shepherd’s work through reading Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

 But Nan Shepherd, it turns out, is a difficult subject for a biographer, particularly an inexperienced biographer. She was apparently intensely private, said little about herself to others; many of her friends didn’t even know she was a writer. It also seems she didn’t leave a lot for a biographer to work on. In the Preface, Peacock says:

She left no journals and much of her correspondence was pitched out. What little is extant in the archives has been heavily censored. Lines are scored through, pages snipped into and in some places completely excised, presumably by Nan herself. Even in her two commonplace books there is rarely any personal comment made alongside the extracts she has carefully copied in. Renowned for her reticence in life, in death it seems Nan Shepherd wished to remain as enigmatic as she was in life. (11)

This prompts a number of questions, not the least being, if someone really does not want to be known to posterity, should one continue to pursue writing a biography. One is forever mindful of Ian Hamilton’s engagement with J.D. Salinger, not to mention the many other biographies where subject and biographer have fallen out, or where the biographer was obliged to tackle the subject in a less conventional way, often, in the case of novelists, through close examination of the subject’s writing. In the case of Nan Shepherd, it would seem that her novels were indeed autobiographical, her first heavily so – Shepherd’s friend, Agnes Mure Mackenzie noted this, and said as much to Shepherd herself: ‘I can’t do this as a rule with other people’s work. With yours as you know I can to a large effect (including tracing some bits of my own in it!)’ (11) –and Peacock indicates in the preface that she will draw on them to flesh out what is known about Shepherd herself.

Part of me thinks ‘oh, no, don’t do that, please’. I’ve seen enough biographies where this approach has been attempted to know that it is likely to fail horribly. But part of me is still very curious, and as it turns out, Peacock seems not to be making really wild assumptions about Shepherd’s life from her fiction, instead using the fiction to provide colour for the facts on the page. And because of Mackenzie’s comment, I can to some extent run with that as an approach. I am uneasy, though, as I nowadays always am about biographical writing, life writing, memoir, call it what you will. In her Preface, Peacock talks about the biographer’s job being to try to reveal the essence of the subject; and for Peacock, the essence of Nan Shepherd lies in The Living Mountain. ‘To grasp Nan Shepherd’s essence is to grasp what prompted her to take that journey into the mountain and what she apprehended from it’ (12), which is probably the one thing we never do entirely grasp, not least because I doubt it is graspable, except by reading The Living Mountain (and because I am curious about Nan Shepherd, I’m clearly going to have to read it again). The point would seem to be that to know her own life, the life of Nan Shepherd, can only be achieved by knowing the life of the mountain.

But if this book is the seminal work in Nan Shepherd’s literary life, the problem is that its gestation is almost entirely invisible to us. Peacock begins the chapter that covers the period when it was probably written by saying:

Nan was thinking about, if not already writing, The Living Mountain in August 1943. We do not have her letter to Neil Gunn, but it is clear from his reply that she had outlined the book to him. (216)

We will pass swiftly over that ‘Nan’ – I dislike first-name familiarity with biographical subjects one has never actually met (and even in those one has met, if truth be told, unless they are close family or one’s partner), and it truly grates in this narrative, not least because of the constant references to Shepherd’s reticence and need for privacy. (And yes, I know, why am I even reading this biography, given all that.) Yet that, and a description of its being turned down by Batsford almost immediately, is pretty much all we will learn about The Living Mountain, until it is finally published, thirty pages later, when its lack of reception will be briefly noted, and its subsequent publishing history cursorily discussed. It may be that Peacock felt she could not convey what Shepherd herself had already conveyed but if so, it’s nonetheless a curious omission given that this is now the book that Shepherd is known for.

In the Preface, Peacock also notes that ‘I have attempted, too, to examine the role of friendship in [Nan Shepherd’s] life, her place within the Scottish “Renaissance” movement and her work, as well as her writing’ (12), and this she does. There is a considerable amount of detail as to who Nan Shepherd knew, and corresponded with, mostly drawn from letters, and this is fascinating in terms of seeing her among like-minded people. Nan Shepherd may have been physically isolated (though she travelled widely at times, visiting friends) but the correspondence that survives suggests she was part of a group of women with very rich intellectual lives who supported one another’s work (although, as Peacock indicates, it was the writer Neil Gunn who was apparently her main creative support). The glimpses we have of this group of women, most of them drawn from among the first female students at the University of Aberdeen, are fascinating. They were part of that post-war generation who were considered a social problem because they couldn’t marry owing to the lack of men to marry, women who worked because they had to but often because they wanted to, women often obliged to support aged parents and unable to live the lives they desired. And buried in this we may find another reason for Shepherd’s reticence about her life – the need to maintain respectability in order to keep her job. Place this alongside Peacock’s suggestion that Shepherd was in love with the husband of a close friend, a couple who at various times experimented with different models of living, including that of an open marriage, though it is not clear whether they knew of Shepherd’s feelings, and one begins to understand Shepherd’s caution about the ultimate fate of her papers. Peacock speculates a little, perhaps rather clumsily, but is not prurient. The sense, though, is that Shepherd had a very rich and fulfilling life; it’s just that she chose not to share it with posterity.

Peacock has done a fairly decent job in laying out the groundwork for a biography of Nan Shepherd. But – and yes, I have been quietly suppressing that ‘but’ until now – I am not sure that Peacock is the biographer that Nan Shepherd really needs; or, maybe, that Peacock has written the biography that Nan Shepherd really needs. So far as I can tell, this is Peacock’s first non-fiction book, and though she’s done an amazing job of pulling together so much information, what is less successful is the way in which she has digested and presented the material.

Unsurprisingly, she has opted for a mostly chronological approach, but the narrative begins a little awkwardly, with the first encounter, in 1941, between Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson, who would herself become a writer with Shepherd’s encouragement. But why Jessie Kesson, other than because she had a good story to tell about meeting Shepherd It’s because their meeting offers a sort of top-and-tail to the story. They got talking on a train because Kesson simply had to tell someone that Charles Murray, the writer, had died. Years later, Kesson is telling the story of the Lady on the Train, and someone asks who it is, only to have to tell Kesson that Shepherd had died that day.

It’s neat, but is it a good place to begin? One has a distinct impression throughout the book that it was more important for Jessie Kesson to have known Nan Shepherd than it was for Shepherd to have known Kesson. Shepherd seems to have been a generous correspondent to other writers and those who wanted to write, but Kesson hovers over the book like an anxious, fluttering presence, constantly retelling the story of how her life changed as a result of meeting Nan Shepherd. Obviously, the narrative must rely on Kesson’s accounts of her interactions with Shepherd, but this opening chapter seems to imply that Kesson was a more intense presence in Shepherd’s life than I suspect was actually the case, and throws the narrative off-kilter before it’s properly begun. After this, the chapter lurches off in different directions, trying to set up various arguments that Peacock will attempt to pursue, before the narrative settles down to a more traditional year-by-year structure. The nature of Shepherd’s spiritual beliefs surfaces here but  in all, this is a throat-clearer of an opening chapter and does the narrative as a whole very few favours.

It’s a shame that, for all her recognition of biography having ‘infinite perspectives’, Peacock settles for the traditional approach – not least the in media res opening – because that relies on having a lot of information about the subject, and it’s clear that Peacock doesn’t really have that much about Shepherd herself, bar a few photographs and various memories. Consequently, we get a lot of detail about other family members, about the locale, its social history. Even that wouldn’t be a bad thing except that it’s dropped onto the page as though Peacock has become distracted from the main task at hand, and has all this fabulous material she just has to tell us about. And a lot of it is genuinely interesting stuff, just not where it is currently situated in the text. Narrative threads are dropped unexpectedly, and just as unexpectedly picked up a few chapters later. Or, we see things like this: ‘Then, in January 1901 the Queen died. The nation went into mourning’, which closes Chapter Two. Chapter Three begins ‘Christmas 1903 was a black one for the Shepherds’. I have no idea what happened to 1902. It’s noticeable too how later chapters are thin, and hurried, by comparison with early chapters, as though Peacock was exhausted by the endeavour, and was anyway running out of material, as I rather suspect she was. Indeed, the biography doesn’t so much draw to a close as simply stop. There is no summation of Shepherd’s life or her career, which suggests that this is an aesthetic choice, but even so, it does not feel satisfactory as a conclusion

But is the fault entirely Peacock’s? I don’t think it is. Writing a book is an exhausting endeavour; after a while you can’t see the wood for the trees, there’s so much to think about. This feels to me like a text that has been lovingly crafted but published without much in the way of editorial oversight. Someone clearly dropped the ball with that conclusion, and indeed at many other points along the way. For various reasons, including stories repeated, questions posed and never answered, desperately convoluted prose, and a myriad other things, I have a strong suspicion this text did not receive quite the edit that it needed and deserved. And here I am talking about developmental editing, not least to help it break free of the ponderous tyranny of chronology. There are questions that someone should have been asking, to guide the author towards the text the bones of which are visible under the informational fat. Precious as every crumb of information about Nan Shepherd might be, it’s clear from this that we really don’t need all of it. Or, rather, that the biography would probably have benefitted from a more thematic approach. I wanted to know more about the women Shepherd knew, Agnes Mure Mackenzie especially. I wanted to know more about Shepherd’s friendship with Neil Gunn, as a piece rather than excavated from a chapter here, a chapter there. I certainly wanted more about the Scottish Renaissance and Shepherd’s involvement in that. Similarly, Peacock clearly wants to talk about what she sees as Shepherd’s interest in Zen, something she references a good deal at the beginning of the book but never properly gets to grips with. For that matter, Shepherd’s relationship with John Macmurray and Betty Campbell needed to be explored with greater clarity. In short, I wanted context and analysis, and there simply wasn’t enough.

The book’s production is also something of an oddity. It looks nice enough externally but the page layout (overly narrow margins, a slightly uncomfortable font) initially suggested self-publishing, although Galileo Publishers seem to be a perfectly respectable small press specialising in poetry reprints and some original poetry collections (and indeed published a very nice edition of Nan Shepherd’s In the Cairngorms a couple of years ago). So did the single-column index, which has some unusual and not tremendously helpful features. The endnotes are a thing of wonder, too, all 1112 of them. You can probably guess how I know that. The more usual way of dealing with them would be to start the numbering afresh with each chapter, and indeed to ask oneself whether all of them were strictly necessary (they aren’t). I’ll just say that it’s very difficult to trace some texts through the endnotes, especially when they don’t appear in the Works Cited section. Which is a shame given that it’s so rare nowadays to have anything approaching critical apparatus in something intended for a more general audience. To make things worse, this text was not copyedited or proofread. Given it’s what I do for a living I try not to talk about the copyediting and proofreading of a text, because obviously I always have a View, and  the lay reader mostly doesn’t need to care about the things that annoy me. In this instance, I challenge you not to see at least some of what I see – there are so many egregious errors I quickly gave up marking them as I read.

To balance this out, I must say that quite apart from having done an amazing and commendable amount of heavy lifting in assembling all this material in the first place, and bringing it to our notice, Peacock is an excellent close reader. She is a published poet herself, and there is absolutely no doubt that the most successful moments in the biography come when she is analysing Shepherd’s poems and fiction. Her prose lifts noticeably and you can tell that she’s happy and confident in what she’s doing. Indeed, one could also wish that Peacock, who has apparently explored the Cairngorms herself, had written about that as well within the terms of the narrative, and perhaps engaged in a creative dialogue with Shepherd. We would, I think, have got a far better insight into Nan Shepherd’s experience as a result, and it would have provided a fantastic perspective on her work. This alone suggests to me that with the proper editorial input Peacock might have produced a slimmer volume but one that more closely hewed to the important things about Nan Shepherd’s life: those writings Shepherd left behind that she could not later edit or excise. As it is, with Into the Mountain, we have ended up with both more than we need and less than we might want.

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Before other things got in the way, I’d hoped to write about some of the books other Sharke judges had put on their shortlists. Since then the actual Sharke and Clarke shortlists have been chosen, and the award finally made, to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad in case you missed it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t return to my original plan. I’ve been wanting to write about Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives. More fool me, I didn’t include it on my own shortlist, which was silly, given that I’ve argued often enough that the novella is the word length par excellence for sf; and given too that we’re in the middle of a resurgence of interest in the novella as a literary form.

I will talk about the science-fictional elements of The Arrival of Missives in due course, but I’m going to begin by thinking out loud a little about what Arrival initially most reminded me of, certainly in its initial stages, and that’s Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the story of Jean Brodie, the outspoken teacher with unusual methods, working in an atmosphere of stultifying conformity to transform a group of girls into la crème de la crème by countering the school’s emphasis on hard knowledge with a diet of art, romantic poetry, and her own extensive views on the world. It’s funny, yes, but tragic too, though not necessarily for the reasons I think people generally suppose. It’s tempting, perhaps, to see Jean Brodie fighting a lonely battle against a Gradgrindian emphasis on facts, but turn back to Spark’s original novella and you are quickly reminded that it is about Jean Brodie, an egotistical monster, overweening, self-regarding, deeply manipulative. She cares very little about the future of her girls, or about what they will do in the world, but a great deal about what they can do for her.

Thus, Brodie’s pleasure lies not in educating the girls for their own sakes, but in using them as proxies to play off her ex-lover, the one-armed art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, against her would-be lover, Gordon Lowther, the singing teacher. One of the most striking things is Brodie’s cruelty towards her protégées, especially poor put-upon Mary, who can do nothing right, though her behaviour towards Sandy and Rose is not that much better, as she manoeuvres Rose towards Teddy Lloyd’s bed, and attempts to enlist Sandy as her spy. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that Mary is desperate to please Miss Brodie whereas Sandy is much more detached. Yes, she and her friend Jenny are, in their way, obsessed with Jean Brodie, but their obsession is articulated through the collecting of knowledge about her. And what it is to have knowledge, as Sandy will come to realise.

For, after all, train a girl as a spy, and what is the likelihood that she will spy on you as well? Thus, much of the fascination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lies not in Brodie’s hideously misguided enthusiasm and admiration of Mussolini and Hitler, but in the fact that Brodie has sown the seeds of her own destruction by creating a figure who will watch her, cold-eyed, learn her strengths, such as they are, and her weaknesses, which are many more than she will ever allow, and then use them against her at the right moment. If Jean Brodie has played a long game, then Sandy, her pupil, has played an even longer one, and played it better, not least because she recognises the damage that someone like Jean Brodie can do to genuinely impressionable minds. In fact, the key thing about most of the Brodie Set is that for all Jean Brodie’s careful selection of them, they will mostly escape her influence, though she will inevitably leave her mark on them. Sandy’s method of escape will prove to be possibly the most extreme, perhaps because she has paid most attention to Jean Brodie’s ways.

But what has this to do with The Arrival of Missives? It was the presence of Mr Tiller, the school master with a war wound, physically disabled, ‘not a real man’, that set me off on that particular train of thought, but the question I eventually found myself considering was the girlhood of Jean Brodie. Where does a creature like that come from? Arrival does not directly answer that question, but I feel the two novellas are somehow in dialogue with one another. Having said that, I believe Arrival is also loosely in conversation with a whole group of narratives published in the late 1920s, early 1930s, all written by women, and addressing issues concerning class and the education of young women. I’m thinking of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, and Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood, to name but three I happen to be familiar with, but there are many more. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961, but it’s set within the same time frame, as is arrival.

If there is a difference between Shirley Fearn and the other protagonists, it is perhaps that she is never less than utterly sure of herself, and of her destiny. There is little in the way of struggle, little to cause self-doubt. She knows with a burning certainty that she is intended for greater things than life as a farmer’s wife, and has determined that becoming a teacher will be her route out. For the reader, Shirley’s ambition is a disappointment, for it is not teaching in and of itself that absorbs her but the thought of teaching alongside Mr Tiller, her own teacher, with whom she believes herself to be in love. Thus, her horizons are already more limited than she seems to realise, even though she is aware that those set for her by others – her parents, the villagers – are just as limited. So, Shirley’s determination is less focused than she might believe.

But there are things that Shirley is aware of, not least that she is under constant scrutiny – her daily routines are so well-known she needs to account for even the slightest deviation, despite all her protestations that she can come and go as she likes – yet she is naively convinced that somehow, when it counts, she is invisible. She assumes she can apply to the teacher training college in Taunton without anyone noticing, whereas the moment she takes her letter to the post office, it becomes the talk of the village. She believes that her love for her teacher is a secret, yet everything about her screams the knowledge to even the least observant person. She may believe herself to be devious and powerful, but bookish Shirley Fearn is herself an open book.

The village, as we will learn, has a completely different plan for Shirley – and I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the entire village does connive in this. As the only farmer’s only child, Shirley will inherit the farm, but it is already presumed that she must marry in order to maintain the farm. Shirley might present herself as being as free-spirited as Bathsheba Everdene, but unlike Bathsheba, she has made no attempt to understand how the farm works, and from the village’s point of view she cannot be relied on to run it properly. And this is important for the village, at a time when many would still be looking to it for work of one kind or another.

Post-World War One, the need to maintain continuity is even more important, perhaps, given that so many have not returned. There is the perceived need to restore what has been lost, and to prevent it being lost again. That deeper attachment to land and family lends a folk-horror flavour to the narrative as the farmer and the church elders settle among themselves that Shirley will be May Queen, with all the attention that brings with it. It is also, though they don’t quite say it, a sexually charged occasion, and everyone has already settled on who Shirley’s husband will be – Daniel Redmore, the younger son of the blacksmith: clever, bookish, not unlike Shirley herself, and with absolutely no interest whatsoever in running a farm, although no one seems to have realised this. Like Shirley, his intention is to get away. In many respects he understands better than Shirley does what is involved in getting away. The question is, how can they achieve it when so many people have already determined their future.

As a result of a fumbling encounter during the May Day celebrations Daniel, whose lack of interest in farm affairs is brutally underlined by his having no idea whatsoever about how sex works, believes that he has ‘compromised’ Shirley, and must therefore do the decent thing. Shirley knows perfectly well that this is not the case – the encounter holds more significance for her because she is an active participant and has become acutely aware of her power over Daniel, and how different her feelings are to those she has for Mr Tiller. She wants Daniel as much as he wants her, if not more. The ‘compromise’ is a technicality, and yet she is willing to abandon her plans for teacher training for the immediacy of marriage, and a new status within the village.

We might argue that Shirley’s interest lies in finding a situation where she remains the centre of attention: “It will soon be past midnight, and I will no longer be anyone’s Queen’ (84). That, though, would be a little unfair to Shirley. She is struggling to understand what has happened and seemingly powerless to stop the marriage bandwagon as it rumbles on. Everyone assumes, approvingly, she is pregnant; that is what was expected of her. She knows full well she is not, and that she has effectively deceived Daniel.

They said I was clever.

I see now they meant that I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings. (85)

Whether Shirley does truly understand, even now, I’m not sure. To be bookish does not mean one is necessarily suited to becoming a learned woman (and how eighteenth-century that sounds). But if she is correct in realising that books could not warn her, Shirley is nonetheless not asking another question a bright girl ought to ask – why are there no books that might warn her? Evidently, she has not read Middlemarch; one can therefore only assume that Shirley’s access to reading material has also been somewhat limited, and this comes as no surprise, given her situation.

There is a mystery embedded within this story, and it takes us back to the presence of Mr Tiller, and hence to the presence within Mr Tiller. As the story opens, Shirley sees all her happiness as lying with Mr Tiller, the school teacher whom she idolises yet we know very little about him. What we do know seems mostly to be conjecture. He was apparently, wounded badly during the war; he moves stiffly, uneasily. The rumour in the village is that he is ‘not a real man’, which is usually code for his injuries being such that he has no sexual function. Shirley knows well enough what the term means but believes she will engaged in a relationship that is sacred, above such base needs, because her love and their holy mission as educators will be sufficient to sustain them. We might smile at her naivete, but it is as well to recognise that this is a stage in growing up – the interest in relationships coupled with the unwillingness to commit to an idea of physicality.

At this stage, Shirley’s obsession is such that she resorts to spying on Mr Tiller, and thus makes the discovery that indeed Mr Tiller is not a real man: he is in part composed of rock. This is the single most remarkable moment of the narrative, so much so that, rather like Shirley, we might find it difficult to comprehend.

It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of a bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread (15).

Isn’t that an extraordinary image? My first thought was to imagine Mr Tiller as one of Milton’s fallen angels. However, it would seem that Shirley has not studied Paradise Lost as the thought does not occur to her. In fact, she seems not to have any frame of reference whatsoever other than the geological. And of course she doesn’t. In this world, there is no science fiction. Hugo Gernsback has not yet invented science fiction as a genre, and it seems unlikely that Shirley Fearn has yet encountered the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. One wonders what she will make of them when she does. And will she later chance upon the work of Olaf Stapledon? Because it is his perception of a massive future history of Earth that seems to me to come closest here to Mr Tiller’s account of being a vehicle for a being or beings attempting to shape the history of Earth, and the massive distances in time and space that their story encompasses.

Even his name is evocative, suggesting, as it does, his role as a means of finding a safe passage through potential dangers. But whose hand, we might ask, is on the tiller? His story implies that Mr Tiller himself is entirely reliant on whatever entity it is that resides in him – he says as much – and thus in no position to question its diktats if he wants to remain alive. And one might suspect that having survived the war to end all wars, he would be only too willing to ensure that the same does not happen again. Yet he, the supposedly educated man, does not question the story the beings have told him. Instead, he is focused on ensuring that Shirley Fearn fulfils her destiny as the mother of great men. Like everyone else, he knows that Shirley is infatuated with him, and he exploits her feelings, unformed as they are, for what he perceives to be the greater good.

What we have, then, is a mirroring on a macrocosmic scale of the situation in Westerbridge. For the villagers, it is important that Shirley marry Daniel, and that they keep the farm going. How would they respond to hear Daniel proposing that he and Shirley might move away and live their lives as they want? For the mysterious rock, it is vital that Shirley and Daniel marry. Or, to be precise, it is vital that Daniel does not marry Phyllis Clemens. So Shirley’s significance resides in the fact that she is not Phyllis rather than in the fact of her being Shirley. It’s not her they want except as a convenient receptacle for Daniel’s sperm. Tiller, and the people he represents, are in it entirely for themselves – there is no interest in either Shirley or Daniel. They are pawns in the biggest game imaginable.

It is only late in in the story, when Shirley demands to speak to the people controlling the rock, that she begins, finally, to question the story she has been told, and to see what is really going on: the absence of women in the world created by the men of the rock, the absence of anyone except old white men. We have moved from a Stapledonian apprehension of vast historical cycles to a much more human dimension. Shirley is faced with a dilemma: will this world come about if she and Daniel do not have children, or if they do? And does she even want this world to come about, given what has already happened? Tiller has committed murder to save the people of the rock, and it’s clear that Shirley’s life is of little interest to him; the same is true of Daniel’s. Their job is to fulfil the prophecy; and it’s probably not World War Two that Tiller is concerned with but something so far in the future it’s beyond human comprehension.

It’s at this point that Shirley makes a genuine sacrifice. She has come to understand that she and Daniel might have a real future together, though it won’t be quite the one she might have romantically imagined.

Truth be told, the more time I spend with [Daniel] the more I appreciate that I could love him. For love is not the high ideal of beauty, of sacrifice, of noble deeds and chaste embraces that I had imagined when once I dreamed of Mr Tiller. It is a dirty business, of wanting and struggling and making do, and being each other’s comfort because the world is cruel and there are few who want to do right by you with no thought of their own needs. I feel the glimmerings of that kind of love with Daniel, I think. And when he touches me I feel something altogether different. Not love, but want. I want him. If I will not get anything else from this life that I desire, why can I not have this one thing? Why can I not have Daniel to distract me? (88)

This is an extraordinary passage, where Shirley finds truth in uncertainty rather than in the beauty offered by Keats, as provided by Mr Tiller. Almost too late she realises that Keats and his ilk were nothing but a palliative. Similarly, she has come to understand that her infatuation with Tiller was just that, and nothing more. Her revealing to Tiller that she is not pregnant, and her decision to call off the wedding to thwart Tiller’s plans, prompt him to take more drastic action, murdering Phyllis Clemens, Daniel’s other potential partner, and then vanishing.

Perhaps the most surprising person in all this is Shirley’s mother, who has seemingly thwarted her ambition all along. Now, when it is far too late, she finally confides in Shirley. Through Shirley’s eyes we have seen her as someone who can’t be trusted or relied on, someone Shirley cannot turn to. Now she says:

‘I wanted you to be better, to be beyond all this.’ She gestures at the ground, the sky. ‘But the more you learned, the further you got away from me, until I could not recognise myself in you. I have been so lonely, watching you make your plans from such a distance, with your head in the clouds. And I became bitter as you excluded me. I could not understand it. But this act [Shirley’s breaking off her engagement] – this I understand.’ (109)

Jonathan McCalmont suggests the novella’s ending is botched, and I’m not going to disagree with that, though I’d perhaps say fumbled. It’s all a little bit too hopeful, a little too Wellsian – the presence of the tandem a little bit ‘Daisy, Daisy’; Shirley and Daniel wobbling hesitantly into an uncertain but perhaps hopeful future has a flavour of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica about it. If they stay together, will they make something of their lives? One wants them to, of course, because they are young, but old enough to know they can’t go one as before. But are they hungry enough to survive? Will they ride out of a Wells novel into something a little more J.B. Priestley? And either way, what will Shirley do? She has rejected the idea of teaching: ‘No more rooms of quiet, seated, suppressed children’ (109), and with that no more thoughts of shaping young people’s lives. She has observed, like Sandy, but unlike Sandy the stories in Shirley’s head have up until now been about herself entirely and have not included others. Where Shirley is like Jean Brody is in her inability to genuinely share and confide, though she is belatedly coming to realise the necessity to do so. In the moment where she says to Daniel ‘I know my own body’, one senses both her frustration, and the beginnings of a path through the world.