Author Archives: maureenkspeller

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.

The wanderer returns … and coincidentally it’s time for the Strange Horizons 2017 fund drive

Paper Knife has been on hiatus longer than I intended but as autumn arrives, it feels like time to get started again, so here I am.

And where better to start than by drawing your attention to the Strange Horizons 2017 fund drive which is now under way and desirous of your support.

As some of you probably know, I have the honour of serving as Senior Reviews Editor on the web site, alongside my awesome fellow reviews editors, Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland.

Naturally, I think Strange Horizons is a pretty amazing thing generally or I wouldn’t be involved with it, and I wouldn’t be telling you about it. But for me, as a critic and reviewer, one of the most important things about Strange Horizons is that it provides an important platform for non-fiction about science fiction and fantasy.

Check out our archive of articles and columns,  not to mention our series 100 African Writers of SFF, masterminded by Geoff Ryman, and our reviews. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our reviewers and the range of the material they cover.

So, on the assumption that if you’re reading this, you and I probably have similar tastes in literature, and you probably believe in the same things as I do, how about supporting Strange Horizons to ensure there’s another year of awesome non-fiction in the world? Click the link to support the  2017 fund drive.

Alternatively, if you want to support Strange Horizons by spreading your giving throughout the year, ensuring us a regular, reliable income stream, we also have a Patreon.

Thank you for your attention.


Let’s all go to La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016)

The week before last, we went to see La La Land; that is, the week before it failed to sweep the board in the BAFTAs. And honestly, I’m really not at all surprised that it failed. I’m still somewhat baffled that it won Best Film. I had been expecting what everyone had been telling me I would get (and indeed what the trailer suggested): a musical. And I’d thought that might be fun, because, god knows we needed some fun, especially as the film I’d seen most recently before that was Rogue One, with the world going phoom, and I’m fairly sure I am going to get that soon in real life. But whatever I got when I saw La La Land – and I suppose it was a sort of bitter-sweet anti-romcom, partaking very mildly of Notting Hill and Rock Follies, with possibly even a slight touch of A Star is Born, plus a helping of nostalgia for my one trip to LA – it was not a musical as I understand it. And certainly not the most memorable film I’ve seen recently.

Or, to put it another way, I’ve just finished watching Neil Brand’s three-part history of the musical on BBC 4, and I am still being earwormed by a song from Rent, a musical I’ve never seen. As we came out of La La Land, Paul Kincaid said to me, ‘can you remember any of the songs from it?’ and with the exception of the one constantly recurring piano figure, and a snatch of ‘City of Stars’, no, I couldn’t. Two weeks later, I can barely remember those, but the song from Rent is still playing insistently in my head. Oh, and I do remember that the ’80s band in La La Land covered A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’, which is a great piece of pop music. So, some musical.

What went wrong? It’s hard to say. Looking at the film, I felt it was an idea of a memory of a musical. It looked like a musical but did not have the sensibility of a musical. In many respects, it reminded me most of The Artist, which paid homage to the era of the silent film but with a modern sensibility (though I think The Artist did it far better). And more broadly, it seemed to be presenting an idea of film that film people would recognise, not because it’s accurate, but because it fits with their romantic notion of the history of film. (The best part of Hugo, for example, is the fantastic little sequence detailing the history of Georges Mélies’ film-making, done in the style of a Georges Mélies film – it’s got damn all to do with most of the rest of the film but it is in love with the idea of film.)

I had slight doubts with the opening sequence (and if by some chance you’ve not yet seen La La Land, and you’ve also forgotten that  Paper Knife always discusses the whole artefact, ending and all, and this bothers you, go and see the film, then return to this discussion). Everyone’s stuck on the freeway, because nothing signifies LA like being stuck on the freeway (not to mention its being a crunching great metaphor for both Seb’s and Mia’s artistic dreams), and for reasons that elude the viewer, they all get out of their cars to sing and dance, as you do. It’s a very ‘musical’ sort of opening. Except, as I thought at the time, it almost seems to parody the idea of the big musical number. There was … too much of everything, somehow, and the dancing and singing was just a little too … contrived and lumpy. (At which point, P. leaned over and said ‘Are you thinking of R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts”?’ And, unsurprisingly, I was.) Was this, I wondered, going to be a film that mildly satirises the form it claims to be a part of? If it was satire, I suspect now it was entirely unintentional.

Of course, the two people not dancing are Seb and Mia, the protagonists. Almost the first thing we see Seb do is to carve up Mia’s car as the jam starts moving again, providing us with the usual filmic thumbnail of character – Seb, impatient, messy, blaring jazz music as he drives; Mia, thoughtful, methodical. As the film unfolds, these character traits are expanded. Each is focused on a dream. Seb is a jazz musician who wants to open his own club but who is currently selling his soul by performing for other people, and being an obnoxious ass about it. Mia is trying to break into film, and goes to audition after audition, in between working in a film-lot coffee house. We initially like Mia a lot more than we like Seb (Emma Stone is charming throughout). Seb is always broke, because he is always buying jazz artefacts, and losing his pianist gigs for not playing what is asked for; Mia appears to be solvent, just, though quite how, given the number of outfits she seems to own, I have no idea.

Over a period of a year or so, they bump into one another several times, generally in unfortunate circumstances before they finally get together. And as a couple they are lovely. Stone and Gosling do have great on-screen ‘chemistry’ (I hate that word – they, or she, at any rate, portray the burgeoning if spiky relationship really well. I gather they’ve been in several films together) and it’s possible to believe in them spurring one another on. It’s even possible to believe that because this is a contemporary musical they don’t take the conventional ‘musical’ route to fame and fortune. Seb signs on with a pop-oriented band in order to earn the money to fund his club. Mia believes he hates it, but I wondered if he wouldn’t always be sardonic about anything he did for money that wasn’t jazz (and that’s not the same as hating it). Seb encourages Mia to write and perform a one-woman show, which seemingly bombs, except that there was a film director in the audience and she gets a call-back. Although Mia is thinking of abandoning her dreams of acting, it is Seb who drives all the way to Boulder City to find her, and who then drives her back to LA to make sure she gets to the audition on time. We’ve already seen her at innumerable auditions, acting her socks off and getting nowhere by being someone else. This time she is permitted to be herself, and of course, she wins through. I spy a Moral. Possibly a double Moral as this is the most unselfish Seb has ever been.

Curiously, what we don’t get to see is how Seb finally achieves his dream of owning a jazz club. as has been noted, he is the world’s most irritating jazz fan. I’ve met him, you’ve met him, and yet there are moments when he does manage to convey his genuine passion in a way that makes you think, yes, ok, I’ll give it a go. (And actually, I do like the kind of jazz he drags Mia off to see – and the musicians are really great.) The last we see of him he is off on tour again, with the band he’s signed up with that is allegedly the new face of jazz (I don’t think so, though it’s good enough pop music) to earn money; how he gets from there to Seb’s is anyone’s guess, and this does seem to me to be a major flaw in the film, because while we come to know a lot about Mia, Seb remains curiously elusive. Or, rather, we’re directed to the idea of this being Seb and Mia’s film, but it’s probably really Mia’s film (see A Star is Born again). Having said which, we are of course meant to be delighted that he too achieved his rather more improbable dream. On the other hand, a tiny voice might whisper, when you have enough money and are famous, you can do anything you want, and it doesn’t matter how genuinely sincere you’ve always been about it. Sadly, this is a level of detail the film declined to go into, because, fluffy, fluffy, feelgood, but I wanted to know.

Well, I say ‘fluffy’, but you would think, would you not, that if a film is a musical, then the big song-and-dance numbers would feature a … well, a bit of a song and dance, wouldn’t you? To which, all I can say, is if you came for the singing and the dancing, and indeed Ryan Gosling playing the piano, this is probably not the film you’re looking for. Much publicity has been expended on Ryan Gosling’s learning to play the piano, which turns out to mean mostly Ryan Gosling being taught some flashy tricks to make it look like he is indeed a rootin’-tootin’ old-time jazz pianist. And he does it very well, because he’s an actor and that is what he is supposed to do. And because apparently he can actually play the piano already, having been in bands before. Which rather leads me to believe that Seb’s band persona is a more carefully studied thing that we might initially realise.

Rather less publicity has been expended on the fact that while Gosling and Stone are both required to sing and dance, because, musical, their singing is mostly only ok (though Stone’s big ‘call-back audition’ song is nicely done) and their dancing is perfunctory, to say the least. I have no idea how long they trained for that but it never really rose beyond adequate, and mostly relied on special effects to get past the fact that that they ever-so-slightly tap-danced, and occasionally sort-of-waltzed a bit. But it was all quite lovely, and as nutritious as cheap marshmallow. Not even candyfloss.


After this the film seems to have gone a bit meh. ‘Five years later’, the caption tells us, and we see Mia, now a successful actress (signified by super high heels – it’s a long way from her taking off her heels and putting on a pair of dance shoes to perform a spiky little duet with Seb, which I took as a pointed, or indeed flat, reference to the absurdity of women having to dance in high heels), coming into the coffee shop where she once worked, and seeing a new, star struck barista at the counter. Another cycle of hope is underway.

We quickly realise that she didn’t marry Seb but some other guy, they have a child, a baby-sitter, and all the trappings of fame and affluence. I admit I had an uncomfortable moment of flashback to Tales of the City, at the point where Mary Ann suddenly became famous and how oddly jarring that had seemed. And one night Mia and her husband find their way to a jazz club that Mia suddenly realises is Seb’s, and there he is on stage.

It is at this point that the one thing that makes this film in any way remarkable occurs: the extraordinary five-minute flashback/alternative timeline sequence which shows what would have happened if Seb and Mia had stayed together, going right back to the point where she first walks into a club, attracted by his music, and speaks to him, only to have him push past her. In the flashback they kiss, and a whole different timeline briefly unspools. I think it’s supposed to be arty and delightful, but it’s almost like it’s taunting the viewer: this is what you wanted, but you didn’t get it, because, hey, real life and all that, and you know you’re always saying you want films to be realistic, well, here you go, bittersweet. I suppose one could argue that this clearly signifies the film’s intent to undermine the form it professes to embrace, but I do wonder …

How do we read this? Seb’s regrets at throwing away a life with Mia for the jazz club of his dreams (which is clearly successful), or a pointed reminder that Mia has lost her freshness thanks to her success? Or what? Things never go quite the way you expect? Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Or shame on you, viewer for wanting a proper happy ever after? I honestly have no idea but that clip destabilises the film in ways I’m not sure it meant to.

So, at the end of the film, we staggered out into the grey, damp Folkestone night, uncertain of what we had seen. We felt no great urge to dance through glittering wet streets, buoyed up by the delightful musical froth we had thought we would be seeing. If anything we walked home feeling rather sombre, which may have been the film’s actual intent, though if it was, it seemed a touch mean-spirited to suggest that dreaming was a kind of nostalgic luxury now, even if it is, and that for most of us it was always going to be beyond our reach – this felt more like a film about shutting down possibility rather than opening it up. Or maybe we just weren’t this film’s audience.

This is not to say it did not have its little moments of joy – Gosling and Stone are hardly the Bogart and Bacall of their generation but there were moments of delicious spikiness that I relished. Gosling does sardonic rather well in La La Land, and I liked him for that. Stone does quirky extremely well, but in a grown-up way that I appreciated. I enjoyed watching her respond while Gosling brooded. The ’80s party is probably the other really good thing in the film, though I also find myself poking mentally at a dinner party scene where everyone else is talking shop and Mia is sitting there in misery, because this is not the business she wants to be involved in.

I was somewhat cheered too by various small sequences which seemed to indicate some ethnic diversity and positivity – a wedding particularly struck me, and Gosling dancing with an older African American woman until her husband shooes him away, to dance with her himself   – but they were small. I wonder too about things like Gosling as the only white man in a black band, and La La Land itself being portrayed as being essentially white. Which it is, as recent Oscar protests have pointed out – if this were a film fantasy, maybe it could have been a more positive kind of fantasy. And yes, I did notice the ‘girls together’ sequence and its very vague nod towards West Side Story but not enough. And I don’t suppose for a moment that there was much effort being made to address these imbalances.

But, honestly, if La La Land wins the Oscar for Best Film, something is wrong. On the other hand, I’ll not be at all surprised if it does, because I suspect a lot of voters will think it’s about the La La Land they know and love, though I’m not actually sure it is. Looking at the Wikipedia entry for La La Land, the usual assembly of snippets and gossip, I notice how keen the entry writer is to lay emphasis on all the things Chazelle and his team did to attempt to recreate the sense of a musical, which is super, but if we have to be told all this, because we don’t seem to see it, then yeah, I’d count that as a fail.

And yet, I watch the trailer, and look at the stills, and the film that might have been still makes me smile. And that’s really, really annoying.


27th February 2017: Well, that didn’t turn out quite as I expected. I had hoped Moonlight would win, as I didn’t think La La Land was anywhere near good enough, but dear me, what a shambles that Oscar announcement was. And not to restage the category announcement properly is disrespectful to the Moonlight team.

Shagreen, or chagrin: the shadows begin to gather

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,

And he shows them pearly white

I’m going to try keep the shark references to a minimum over the next few months, not least because my fellow Shadow Clarke Award judge, Vajra Chandrasekera, is already staking out that piece of territory quite nicely, but that snatch of song just popped into my head. ‘The Shadow knows!’ flitted through my brain as I finished that sentence; I have no idea why, as I’d mostly been preoccupied with thinking about Babylon 5 until that point. Sometimes, the early-morning brain is a startling mish-mash of cultural fragments. But now, after a cup of tea, it’s time to work.

A week ago, Nina Allan announced that a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury for the 2017 Arthur Clarke Award. As Nina goes on to say:

We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

Other awards have shadow juries – the Booker, for one, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for another. But I can’t think of an sff award that has had a shadow jury before. (And yes, I am aware of the Not-the-Clarke panels at Eastercon, but I’m obviously going to argue that this is a different kind of project.) I did carry out my own informal shadow project on the Clarke Award a few years ago (The Shortlist Project), which was something of an eye-opener. I enjoyed the process on some levels but missed the discussions with other people and didn’t do it again. Which is one reason why I’m so glad to be involved in the Shadow Clarke jury this year. More people to talk to, and such people!

But more seriously, Nina’s initial post raised some important points, I’d like to reiterate here:

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be …

I’ve shared Nina’s anxieties for some time, arising from my own reading, and from conversations with Nina herself. But how to articulate that feeling of dis-ease? It’s very easy to jump up and down and shout ‘what was the jury thinking? Was the jury even thinking?’ but that is unfair to each individual Clarke jury. They set their terms anew each year and go about their business as best they can. I’ve been a Clarke judge myself and it is no picnic. I’m sure a lot of people imagine it’s all ‘wow, free books’, but a look at the submissions list will tell you that the jewels are accompanied by a lot of dross – and yes, let’s be blunt about this, dross. This is not unique to the Clarke Award, by any means. I’ve been a Tiptree judge, and witnessed a Campbell Award judge at work; it goes with the territory. But while it’s worth being mindful of the fact that one woman’s dross is another man’s treasure, some dross is just dross …

If there is a problem, with the Clarke and other juried awards, it’s that … actually, there are two problems. One is that the jury’s deliberation is private, and indeed it should be, but as a result we have no access to the debate and can never know what prompted them to make certain decisions. There is probably horse-trading some years, and publishers are not always willing to have their titles submitted if they’re trying to market a book a certain way that is emphatically not science fiction. We don’t know, we can only guess, and it makes things difficult when a book doesn’t appear on a shortlist, and we ask ‘why didn’t they put that on?’ not knowing that the publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t submit. Judges can ask for books but that doesn’t mean they’ll arrive.

But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.

I am a slightly late arrival, as ever, to the introductory posts-party. Nina Allan has already posted about the Shadow Clarke on her own blog, while Paul Kincaid laid out his stall over at Through the Dark Labyrinth. David Hebblethwaite isn’t blogging much at the moment, but he’s posting on Facebook and on Twitter and is well worth following in both those places. Megan AM, known to some of us on Twitter as @couchtomoon, has opted for a classier level of punning, invoking Gene Wolfe, and has posted about her involvement with the Shadow Clarke at her own blog, From Couch to Moon. Megan and I talked about the Clarke Award 2016, with Jonah Sutton-Morse, on his Cabbages and Kings podcast here and here, so I’m particularly pleased to be working with her again on this project. Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture but hasn’t said anything about the Shadow Clarke there as yet; you can also find him being pithy at @apeinwinter (I said pithy). Victoria Hoyle gives her thoughts on the Shadow Clarke here, with moving pictures and all (but don’t expect that from me as it isn’t going to happen. I have an excellent face for podcasts). And Nick Hubble can be located at @contempislesfic on Twitter. You already know where to find Vajra’s blog but he is also on Twitter at @_vajra

But most important of all, this project is taking place under the auspices of the shiny new Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy, based in Cambridge, and run by Helen Marshall. This is incredibly exciting, not least because we hope it will bring even more people to the discussion. We’ll be publishing our thoughts there as well as on our blogs, and talking on Twitter (#shadowclarke).

I’ll also try to collate material from the internet about this project on Paper Knife as we go along.

File 770 has already covered the launch of the Shadow Clarke; some of the comments were interesting, especially from people who had never encountered the notion of a shadow jury before. And I utterly refute the Puppy comparisons.

Also, we have no influence whatsoever on the actual Clarke Award, as people have asked. We don’t get to put any titles on the shortlist. I rather hope the Clarke judges will entirely ignore us until it’s all over.

But that’s all for now. The Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list is out later today, so the work will begin in earnest.

Two final thoughts.

Sharkskin is also known as shagreen, and was once used as an abrasive to achieve a fine finish on wood. I’m not quite sure what that means here, but it feels significant.

And lastly, to finish off the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post,

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear

And he keeps it out of sight.

I mention it only because this is of course Paper Knife.

Reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald


Another Interzone review, this time from late 2015. I’m still sad I didn’t like this novel more.

mcdonald_lunaThe publicity surrounding Luna would have us read it as a gritty species of space opera: The Godfather on the Moon. Ian McDonald is already known for taking others’ ideas and pushing them in new directions, as if to see just how far they can be made to go. In that case, why not take stories from other genres and do the same? The question is what, if anything, does this sidelong hommage bring to the main story? Do we accept it as a literary shorthand to get us beyond the corporate wars of something like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour novels and into a new, more intricately corrupt world. McDonald is quite clear that the battle for the Moon and its resources will be ugly, and a million miles from the utopian cooperation beloved of a certain kind of sf novel. Or should we simply regard it as an opportunity to experience gang wars in space? And if this latter, is there really any point?

McDonald’s Moon is run, inevitably, by five clans, the Five Dragons, under the impotently watchful eye of the Eagle of the Moon (a nod perhaps to the original explorers of the Moon). The peace between them is uneasy, maintained by an elaborate series of dynastic and, unsurprisingly, mostly loveless marriages. Business is all, and everything, including friends and family, is liable to be sacrificed to that. Of the five families, Corta Hélio, headed by the formidable eighty-year-old Adriana Corto, is the brash young kid on the block. Corta’s ambition lifted her out of poverty in Brazil, and brought her to the Moon, where she spotted a business chance and turned it to her advantage. AKA, Mackenzie Metals, VTO and Taiyang have only grudgingly admitted Corta Hélio to their ranks, and only because it is so powerful they can’t afford not to. Lunar high society, reluctantly tight-knit as it is, seems also to be riddled with secret groups, hoping to leverage things to their own advantage. And around them the beautiful people, for whom money is no object, meet and party, while out of sight the workers get on with making more money for them, while paying for the Four Elementals that keep them going: air, water, carbon and data.

McDonald employs the montage technique that has served him well in the past – one thinks inevitably of Desolation Road – but while we may jump from Adriana, contemplating her death and seeking solace in the religious beliefs of her past, to Lucasinho, youngest male scion of the clan, on the run from his repressive father, to Marina Calzaghe, saviour of Rafael Corta after an attempt on his life, to Ariel, the brittle lawyer, only daughter of the clan, none of this seems to move the novel forward significantly. The more interesting parts of the narrative dwell in the glimpses of those elements of family life that are avoided in polite conversation, and which are of course precisely those places the reader wants to go.

We are also directed to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance of them as the norm. In truth, it’s difficult to find a reason to care about the Corta children and their business, perhaps because rich people being rich, and worrying about remaining rich, just aren’t that interesting. Adriana’s autobiography, her final confession to Irma Loa, a Sister of the Lords of Now, is the meatiest, and maybe most traditional part of the story, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the novel. We might wonder about Lucasinho’s charming but incomprehensible interest in baking cakes, or be drawn, as Marina is, to the discovery of the perpetual run taking place in the tunnels of João de Deus, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. We certainly crave to know more about Wagner, the moonwolf, the Corta outsider. All these are elements of the Ian McDonald whose work I love for its verve and daring, but they remain underexplored, somehow constrained by the form and setting that he’s chosen for this novel. Adam Roberts noted that Luna has much in common with the soap opera Dallas, and this is true, but I think also of The Great Gatsby, and of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clear up the mess they had made’. They have much in common with most of the Corta family.

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.


black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.





Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.




book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.




We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.