Category Archives: awards

BSFA Awards shortlists

Two shortlists in one day, as the BSFA Awards shortlists were also announced yesterday. Another interesting set of nominations. And for the second time, Paul Kincaid, Karen Burnham and I are all up against one another in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Best Artwork:

Richard Anderson for the cover of Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, published by Angry Robot Books.

Blacksheep for the cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz

Tessa Farmer for her sculpture The Wasp Factory, after Iain Banks.

Jeffery Alan Love for the cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz

Andy Potts for the cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, published by Egmont

Best Non-Fiction:

Paul Kincaid for Call and Response, published by Beccon Books

Jonathan McCalmont for ‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’

Edward James, for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War

Strange Horizons: Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring, Maureen Kincaid Speller for The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium

Karen Burnham for Greg Egan, published by University of Illinois Press

Best Short Fiction:

Ruth E J Booth for “The Honey Trap”, published in La Femme, Newcon Press

Octavia Cade for The Mussel Eater,  published by The Book Smugglers

Benjanun Sriduangkaew for  Scale Bright, published by Immersion Press

Best Novel:

Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press

Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan

Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris

Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz

Ann Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit

Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit

Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder

Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press


Kitschies Awards shortlists

It’s time for the Kitschies Awards shortlists  – always a highlight in my reading year. I’m very much looking forward to working my way through the lists.


The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

  • The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, design by Steve Marking, lettering by Kimberly Glyder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming, cover by Ben Summers (Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Through the Woods, cover by Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
  • The Book of Strange New Things, cover by Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
  • Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinamann)

The Invisible Tentacle (Natively Digital Fiction)

  • echovirus12, created/curated by Jeff Noon @jeffnoon, Ed @3dgriffiths, James Knight @badbadpoet, violet sprite @gadgetgreen, Richard Biddle @littledeaths68, Mina Polen @polen, Uel Aramchek @ThePatanoiac, Graham Walsh @t_i_s_u, Vapour Vox @Wrong_Triangle
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer
  • 80 Days, by Inkle Studios
  • Sailor’s Dream, by Simogo


Reading off-piste – the Hugo shortlists 2014

Yes, I have another project; reading the shortlists for the Hugo Awards 2014.

Last week I read an article in the New Yorker by Christine Smallwood. It’s a review of The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose. Smallwood describes it as a ‘stunt book’, in which Rose ‘reads through a more or less random shelf of library books’. That someone might undertake such an exercise, Smallwood suggests (and one has the impression that Smallwood isn’t actually that impressed by this feat – and I can’t say I am, either) is a reflection of the ‘embattled climate of bibliophilia’ in which ‘authors undertake reading stunts to prove that reading–anything– still matters’.

Apparently, the number of Americans who read has been declining for thirty years, and Smallwood suggests that those who do read ‘have become proud of, even a bit overidentified with, the enterprise’. This overidentification seems to find its expression in merchandising. ‘Alongside the tote bags you can find T-shirts, magnets and buttons emblazoned with covers of classic novels; the Web site Etsy sells tights printed with poems by Emily Dickinson’. Why??? Meanwhile we’ll draw a veil over the paint colours inspired by literature. Smallwood comments that the ‘merchandising of reading has a curiously undifferentiated flavour, as if what you read mattered less than that you read.’ Except that this seems to me to be less about reading than about advertising that you read.

Rose describes her own ‘adventure’ as ‘Off Road or Extreme Reading’, and draws comparisons between her reading and Ernest Shackleton’s explorations of the Antarctic (though presumably not the one where his men had to overwinter while he and a small crew sailed over 1000kms and then trekked across South Georgia to fetch help). The brief pause here … is me rearranging my face to avoid an expression of utter incredulity at Rose’s comparison. I didn’t do very well.

Because obviously, Rose carefully selecting a suitable random shelf (no, really – this is a whole new definition of random) in the New York Society Library is absolutely analagous to Shackleton and his crew heading for the Antarctic. Apparently, there is a whole subgenre of books in which readers conduct such armchair expeditions. I’d been dimly aware of such books existing but hadn’t felt moved to read any of them, perhaps because I’ve always got my own reading projects on the go and am associated with online communities where other people are similarly engaged. And I’d argue my reading projects are rather more directed than Rose’s. Of course I’d argue that.

And I suppose I’m feeling just a little bit unsettled about this as I have another reading project getting underway right now: a read through some of the Hugo Award shortlists for 2014. And there’s the rub. I have this whole project set up in my head, the reading loaded onto my tablet … and yet, isn’t this all just another performance? Am I really any better than Rose with her ridiculous analogies? I have form, after all – see The Shortlist Project.

And the answer is, of course, both yes and no. To read through a series of shortlists is a feat in itself, one made more complicated by the fact that one nomination is in fact eighteen volumes (needless to say, the one question on everyone’s lips has been, ‘Are you going to read the whole Wheel of Time, to which my response has been ‘yes, if I can’) but whereas Rose’s project is mainly notable for its sheer randomness (well, its highly structured, with an eye to publication, randomness), coupled with a strong sense of ‘no one else has ever done this before’, I would like to think mine contrbutes to the community endeavour of determining which nominations deserve to win. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In fact, as I’ve started preparing for this project, it’s begun to turn into a personal enquiry into the politics and practice of reading and criticism, or rather, my practice and my take on the politics of reading. I could try to explain that in detail now, but I think it will be better, more effective even, to discuss the issues as they arise and let the picture unfold gradually. And the first issue is whether this is mere grandstanding or a serious critical endeavour. Possibly that can only be judged at the end of the project

Oddly, Smallwood’s article picks up on similar issues. Moving on from Rose’s enterprise, Smallwood provides a thumbnail sketch of different approaches to reading over the last century – close reading, theory, the wrenching open of the canon to include ‘women and people of colour’, ‘surface reading’ (which apparently describes rather than decodes) which is also ‘just reading’, which apparently focuses simply on what is manifest in a text. I linger momentarily on that because, to me, it is impossible to ‘just read’ when ‘just reading’ brings so many other things into play. That may be my academic training intruding, but ‘just reading’ suggests the words fly past one’s eyes and somehow sidestep the brain, whereas I’d argue that there is always some sort of judgement, however rudimentary, involved.

Rose’s book, apparently, engages mostly in plot summary, which is fine so far as it goes, but in my view it doesn’t really go that far. Most people could read a book and provide some sort of summary of its content and I have very little patience with the sort of criticism that does nothing other than recapitulate the story. Rose is also what Smallwood calls ‘a social reader’; that is, she sees her reading as encounters with the authors. She ‘meets’ her authors, and in a couple of instances does actually meet them. To me, this is anathema. Not the meeting authors in the flesh (authors are, for the most part, people too, and some of them are excellent company) but the assumption that one can ‘meet’ authors by reading their books. I may no longer be a thorough-going Barthesian (it’s all far more complicated than the mere death of the author) but neither do I believe that what is on the page is, on the whole, the sum of the person who wrote it. Which is not to say either that the author’s personal presence never intrudes either, but I’ll come to that later. Having said that, I’m interested that Rose came across the work of Rhoda Lerman and indeed tracked her down, even if Lerman turned out not to be quite what Rose expected. But that’s kind of incidental to anything I’m attempting here.

So, I start on my own extreme, or more accurately endurance, reading project with an uncomfortable feeling that yes, I am ‘performing’, though I hasten to reassure everyone I’m not planning on comparing my endeavours to Shackleton’s expeditions because, well, because that’s silly. But yes, in a way I am performing. I’d like to feel the world is hanging on my words of wisdom as I offer my opinions, because I’m not so bad at being a critic, but I have a strong suspicion it will boil down to whether I can make it through the entire Wheel of Time. Game on.

deep linking – 5/3/2014

I gave up the battle to keep track of the ebb and flow (and it was mostly flow) of  discussions surrounding this year’s Hugo nominations very early on. However, Stefan Raets has performed a Herculean task in gathering together as many links as he possibly can so I shall send you to his blog to read through them. Link here.

Having said that, I will pull out a small group of links, beginning with Larry Correia explaining how and why sf shouldn’t be all about the politics, which was followed by an article in that bastion of ‘journalism’, USA Today, by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, confirming that Larry Correia was just so correct about that (I was going to say ‘right’ but obviously I’d want to keep the politics out of it), and balanced by a contribution by Foz Meadows to the Huffington Post, arguing (correctly, in my view) that you really can’t separate politics and science fiction (or any other kind of fiction for that matter.

I’ve a vague notion to review the contents of the Hugo voter’s packet when it finally crashes into my inbox (I’m envisaging a world pixel shortage, given it includes the entire Wheel of Time sequence). If I do, I’ll be coming back to what is discussed above.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Magazine has published a piece by Eileen Gunn, How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors are Shaping Your Future. I should note (with no disrespect to Eileen, who was obviosly following a brief) that non-US science fiction authors are also doing this.

In The Atlantic Noah Berlatsky used Eileen’s article as a springboard for pondering Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People. A good question …

BSFA Awards 2014

That is, the BSFA Awards for works published in 2013.

The awards were announced on April 20th, 2014 at the 65th Eastercon in  Glasgow.

The ceremony was hosted by Alice Lawson and Steve Lawson with guest presenters Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jim Burns, Andrew J. Wilson and Stephanie Saulter.

Best Non-Fiction: Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer.

Best Art: cover of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-Fi.

Best Short Fiction: Spin by Nina Allan

Best Novel: ties between Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice.

Or, if arranging it alphabetically by author’s first name or surname, Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice and Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque.

I can’t ever recall a tie for this category.

Congratulations to all the winners.

Weekend round-up – some links

First, the Hugo shortlists have been announced. amid some controversy; in particular the presence of Vox Day, Larry Correia and one or two others, not to mention the complete Wheel of Time saga, in their various categories. There’s plenty of commentary about all of this across the web right now, and I’m not adding to it for now.  I’m happy, though, to see the fan categories looking a lot livelier than they’ve done in some years.

Link to the complete list of nominees is here, to save me typing it out again.

The 1939 Retro Hugos shortlist was also announced: the list of nominees is here.

And while I’m about it, more posts about genre, lit fic, the usual.

Chris Beckett, winner of last year’s Clarke Award, in The Atlantic

Juliet McKenna in The Guardian

Kitschies 2013 – shortlists announced

The Kitschies, the annual prize for books containing elements of the “speculative and fantastic” are proud to announce their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction of 2013.

This year’s shortlists are selected from a record 234 submissions, coming from over fifty different publishers and imprints.

The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

• Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
• A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
• Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
• More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
• The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also selected by the above panel:

• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
• A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
• Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
• Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
• Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art), selected by Craig Kennedy, Sarah Anne Langton, Hazel Thompson and Emma Vieceli.

• Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz) / Design and illustration by Sinem Erkas
• The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot) / Art by Will Staehle
• Homeland and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Titan) / Design by Amazing15
• Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key) / Art by Gianmarco Magnani
• Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century) / Art by Joey Hi-Fi

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the Seven Dials Club on 12 February. The winners will receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies and bottles of The Kraken Rum.

The Kitschies, sponsored by The Kraken Rum, are now in their fifth year, with previous winners including Patrick Ness, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville and Nick Harkaway.

– END –

Further information for editors:

“This was an awe-inspiring year. For the Red Tentacle, we could have built a shortlist composed purely of iconic names, and we had to reject at least one book which may be a work of genius because it did not entirely mesh with the Kitschies’ cardinal virtues: ‘intelligent, entertaining, and progressive’. The debuts are pretty breathtaking, too: broad in scope, deft and compelling. It’s been an education as well as a privilege to judge the prize, and a vast relief not to be in competition with these writers.” – Nick Harkaway

“What an honour to be confronted with so many beautiful books, it can make any creator feel…quite inadequate. Their overall quality made judging a tricky business, and many post-it notes were lost to the greater good, but our entire judging panel was professional, balanced and placated with The Kraken Rum. We didn’t even draw blood.” – Emma Vieceli

For more information about the prize, its criteria or the judges, please see:

A breakdown of this year’s submissions is available:

More about The Kraken Rum:

The finalists’ covers can be downloaded here:

Nod – Adrian Barnes

As with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (and indeed, Drew Margary’s The End Specialist last year), it is difficult to account for the presence of Adrian Barnes’ Nod on the Clarke Award shortlist. Is it there because it looks like left field science fiction? A concession to the litfic tendency? Because it is an excellent piece of fiction in some way that currently eludes my critical faculties? Nod - Barnes

We may never know what was on the judges’ minds, but having already taken down The Dog Stars on the straightforward basis of its not being science fiction, I didn’t want to simply carry out a similar process with Nod. Sniping at shortlist choices is easy, can sometimes be fun, but in the case of things like The Dog Stars, or The End Specialist, or Nod, I’ve begun to feel that it’s ultimately neither satisfying or productive, not least because I think there is frequently a false comparison being made; i.e. as an apple, this makes a really crap orange, when no one actually intended that I should consider it as an orange.

To develop that point a little more, all three of these titles are novels that so far as I can tell were not deliberately written as sf, nor in two instances even marketed as such. Two out of the three may be characterised as dystopian, if one defines ‘dystopian’ as ‘oh my god, the world as we know it is falling apart’; it may just be the scholar in me but I think that is a definition that is very unhelpful, although it does seem to have become the default description for anything in which the world we’re familiar with is a teeny bit threatened by something or other.

All three novels utilise a scenario that might be characterised as catastrophic, apocalyptic even if you must (though again, I’d argue that the two are not entirely the same), though in The Dog Stars we are clearly dealing with a post-scenario, whereas with The End Specialist it’s never-ending, and in Nod, we’re in at the beginning. What does mark all three novels, however, is that these are writers using tropes of science fiction without necessarily seeking to write science fiction

In the case of The Dog Stars the catastrophe is clearly nothing more than a way of getting rid of most of the people and infrastructure, to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to bunker down on an airfield with his dog and grow vegetables in solitude. If anything, it reminds me most of children’s books of the 1950s and ’60s, where the author’s first job was to safely dispose of the parents for the novel’s duration. As I said when I reviewed the novel, the catastrophe is nothing more than window dressing. In which case, to co-opt the novel as science fiction by placing it on the Clarke Award shortlist, particularly when it isn’t very good science fiction, or for that matter very good fiction, is to ask far more of it than it was ever capable of giving.

In The End Specialist it was evident that Margary knew what a certain kind of science fiction looked like and he worked its motifs and metaphors as hard as he could. Yet I never had the sense that he was using them to tell a story. The novel was all surface and effect; somehow the idea of a narrative had got lost along the way. And yes, I don’t doubt that Margary was making a Big Point about Society, but that should by no means be antithetical to telling a story as well.

Nod falls into different territory again. We have what might be some sort of catastrophe and resulting associated rapid disintegration of society, and zombies, but we might also be invited to read the science-fictional trappings as nothing more than an extremely extended metaphor for the condition of late capitalist society. In which case, we shouldn’t be reading it as a novel of catastrophe at all, because … metaphor trumps ‘realism’. This is a view that one or two people have expressed to me but while I understand what they’re saying, I remain sceptical as whether, assuming this is what Barnes is doing, he has been successful.

At this point, I need to introduce yet another novel into the equation, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, one of the most fascinating novels published so far this year. To all intents and purposes, it behaves like a realist novel, and a beautifully made one at that, set mostly in England in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s a familiar world, politically and domestically. Atkinson has really caught the feel of the middle-class house, with a couple of servants, a slight roughness in the domestic arrangements. It is pleasantly reminiscent of E.M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady taken seriously. Alongside this, two world wars take place, women struggle for emancipation on so many levels as well as demanding universal suffrage. Attitudes change as men go off to war and return. Atkinson observes the effects of war with great compassion and understanding.

Ursula, the ‘little bear’, the novel’s pivotal character, struggles to make a life for herself beyond her rather narrow-minded mother’s rather dismal expectations for her. This may all sound rather conventional, except for one thing: the baby Ursula dies in the opening moments of the novel. Except that a chapter later she is born again, and this time she survives. Later, she drowns, but another time she survives. And so it goes on.

Anyone familiar with J.B. Priestley’s time plays will already have some inkling of what’s going on here, and I’m guessing that Atkinson is also very familiar with J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment in Time. Ursula’s many lives ripple out from the novel’s opening. Some Ursulas are aware to a greater or lesser degree that theirs is not the only life; others are blissfully unaware or else vaguely troubled by visions and presentiments. Through this skilful layering of stories, Atkinson also presents a fantastic mosaic portrait of a woman’s life in Britain up to the 1960s.

Critical reaction has, needless to say, been mixed. Three critics on Radio 4’s Saturday night arts discussion programme tied themselves in knots, trying to figure out what was going on, and were generally very unhappy with the novel’s structure. Yet every genre-savvy reader I’ve seen commenting on the novel seems to immediately grasp that Atkinson is in some way working with alternative time streams, quantum universes, call them what you will, using them to construct this composite portrait of Ursula’s lives.

This is where it gets complicated. What I want to argue here is that Heller, Margary, Barnes and Atkinson – and we could throw in novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P.D James’ infamous The Children of Men – are all attempting to Speak Trope, that is, to use ideas that might be classed as science-fictional but not in ways that are necessarily immediately identifiable as ‘genre’.

I’ve likened the process to using another language very deliberately because, in many ways it seems to me to be like, say, understanding music or mathematics, or being able to speak a foreign language sufficiently well to be able to use it idiomatically.

Let us consider these novels in the light of this idea. The Children of Mendidn’t speak Trope at all, insofar as James kept telling us she was using ‘real science’, though all this demonstrated in the end was that she understood neither Trope nor science fiction. In fact, to judge from the relative success of the film, she intuitively knew what Trope looked like but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate this.

The Dog Stars< learned a word or two of Trope, perhaps because someone taught it to say a few useful phrases phonetically. I might learn to ask ‘where is the concierge?’ but, critically, will I understand the answer? The answer was not, I think, what Heller wanted to write about. Having invoked Trope with a little mystical hand-waving, Heller fells silent and swiftly moved on to the rest of the story, about love and loneliness and a blessedly empty landscape.

The End Specialist might seem to speak Trope reasonably fluently until you actually tried to make sense of what it was saying, at which point it turned out to be saying little more than ‘shiny shit’ over and over again, VERY LOUDLY, with slight variations and increasing frustration that people didn’t understand. It’s not that they didn’t understand, more that they understood only too well that while The End Specialist had the accent, it had only a fairly rudimentary vocabulary, one that ran to ‘electronic device’, ‘drugs’, ‘violence’, ‘kill’, and ‘shiny shit’.

Atkinson speaks Trope confidently, and uses it without needing to draw attention to what’s she’s doing. If you’re familiar with the tropes of sf, when you read her novel what she does simply feels … right. Of course this does in part depend on how you view sf but I am quite prepared to argue that Life After Life is part of an ongoing discussion about the nature of time, and that seems to me to be a part of sf. Atkinson’s is a natural, unforced use of Trope; indeed, I cannot see how she could otherwise tell the story. She understands the idiom and as a result it enriches the novel, not least because she does it in a way that also resonates with how writers of the period might have used it.

Which brings us back to Nod, though here the question might be not how well does Barnes speak trope, but why does he need to speak it in the first place? The tendency seems to have been for critics to read Nod as an apocalyptic or catastrophe novel, and as such to read it unfavourably, as a failed example of the genre. Here, I put up my hand and say that was my initial response. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the apocalypse and accompanying zombies should be read in more metaphorical terms, mainly as a commentary on late capitalism and the way in which ‘we’ sleepwalked our way into the mess we now find ourselves in. That might also have a certain plausibility, though I would suggest that the zombie/sleepwalking metaphor is already more than a little well-worn, and anyway, I do believe Colson Whitehead covered that topic with Zone One which I believe to be a much more successful novel than Nod.

The problem for me is that I have begun to suspect that Barnes’s use of trope is not actually based on speaking trope, but for whatever reason on having run it through some literary equivalent of Google Translate. Some chapters into Nod, it began to occur to me that there was something very familiar about this novel and I eventually realised that in many respects it resembled John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which happens to be one of my all-time favourite sf novels, cosy catastrophe novel, call it what you will); or rather, it was a kind of Triffids de nos jour. The incidents were often similar but the outcomes were frequently very different. The Day of the Triffids famously begins with much of the world’s population waking up blind one morning, after observing a meteor shower the night before. Bill Masen, the novel’s first-person narrator, did not see the lightshow because he was in hospital, in a darkened room, his eyes bandaged, recovering from the effects of a triffid sting. As a consequence, the following morning he finds himself in the position of being one of comparatively few people who can see.

In the novel, Masen is positioned as something of a loner. He’s unmarried, an only child of parents who are now dead, a man of some means, solidly lower middle-class. He works for a company that farms triffids for oil and other by-products, and is something of a field expert on their habits and behaviour. As a result, he is quicker than most to realise the threat posed by walking stinging plants to a mostly blind population.

In London, where the novel begins, Masen finds himself witness to the rapid disintegration of civilisation. Those of the blind who have not already fallen victim to the triffids are starving. Some, the strongest and most violent, attempt to imprison sighted people to act as guards. Those who are sighted gradually find one another and begin to make tentative plans for the future, though these vary from setting up new colonies intended to replenish the population as fast as possible to setting up strict religious groups to care for the blind. In particular, a political agitator, Wilf Coker, kidnaps a number of sighted people, including Masen and his companion, Josella Playton, and assigns each sighted person to a group of blind people, a plan which fails as disease begins to set in.

When Masen’s group finally dies off he sets off in search of Josella, picking up Coker again along the way. Their journey across southern England is, as I’ve argued before, effectively a testing of a series of alternative approaches for coping with catastrophe. The monastic no-sex approach directly offsets the farming babies for the future model; Coker’s altruistic-cum-socialist approach is admirable but, as he admits, more difficult to execute than he thought as it does rely on getting others on board with the idea. Masen’s approach is more individualistic without being rabidly every man for himself, and works because Masen is already accustomed to taking care of himself, is resourceful but also not afraid of either hard work or to address the gaps in his knowledge. Also, critically, he is aware of the fact that this is going to be a long haul. His accidental model involves a group bound together by ties of family, friendship and filiation, and a willingness to see blind people as being adaptable human beings. Throughout there are hints of other responses to the crisis – towns barricaded off, gunfire when Masen attempts to scavenge – it is only at the very end of the novel that alternative political models intrude. The group that originally advocated polygamy makes contact, having set up home on the Isle of Wight, and admit that maybe … Significantly, Coker has found his way to them and we infer that there will always be someone to challenge and test their ideas. Another group, setting itself up arbitrarily as a new English government, proposes a much more totalitarian approach, not the least of which involves treating the blind as little short of animals, and it is this that prompts the group to escape and head for the Isle of Wight, recognising that there now needs to be safety in greater numbers.

Wyndham’s novel was published in 1951, and brings with it powerful resonances of World War Two, austerity, National Socialism, death camps, and the post-war drive to build a new and better world. While Masen himself is pragmatic rather than optimistic, he allows himself hope and the conviction that things can and will improve, slowly, gradually but in different ways to what went before. I’d also suggest that Masen fits squarely in the mould of the competent hero so beloved of science fiction (and for that matter, given the period in which the novel was written, Josella is very much his equal throughout the novel) but his is a more domestic competence than that found in much American sf of the time. He is not out on the hostile surface of an asteroid, saving himself from the burning rays of the sun; he’s in Pulborough, Sussex, saving himself from walking plants and worrying about milking the cows. It is, or was at the time, something much more realistic, easy to latch onto. As a young adult, at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was still a very real thing, I don’t mind admitting that The Day of the Triffids shaped my thoughts on survival (at least, until Raymond Briggs brought out When The Wind Blows)

Now let us turn to Nod. Barnes offers us a world in which, suddenly, almost no one can sleep. No one knows why but, given this is the 21st century, the media is pouring out speculation, and most people are already aware that unless a solution can be found, after thiry-two days they will die, though they will almost certainly have gone mad long before that. Paul, the novel’s narrator, is one of the few who can sleep – from an artistic point of view, this is very convenient as it means he will be able to continue documenting society as it, inevitably, falls apart.

What is immediately striking is how vulnerable the sleepers are. They are easily identifiable because they are clearly better rested and, unless they can keep their condition secret, they are of course very vulnerable when they sleep. Whereas the blind need the sighted, the presence of the sleepers merely enrages the insomniacs, who are already driven half mad by sleep deprivation and fear of what is to come. Many people in Triffids realised early on what was going to happen, faced the inevitable and committed suicide, in Nod the crisis comes with a built-in cut-off date, pre-planned obsolescence.

Paul himself is not that interested in finding out what’s going on, beyond sitting in front of the tv, at least until that goes off. Whereas Bill Masen’s impulse is to get out of the hospital as soon as he can, to witness for himself, Paul shows a marked reluctance to do anything. Until the crisis comes, he was a writer, working on obscure books about etymology that don’t, so far as we can gather, sell very well. His partner Tanya goes out to work while Paul hides away at home, in his high-rise apartment, crouched over his laptop, taking his view of the world from the internet, or more often ignoring everyone and everything. He appears to have few friends, his relationship with Tanya seems to an outsider to be unrewarding for both of them, and crucially, he seems to have no real interest in anything but himself.

In general, he lacks curiosity; in particular he seems unable to look into the future in any meaningful way other than to sit it out for the requisite number of days and then see what happens. It certainly hasn’t occurred to him that it might be a good plan to immediately get in some food and water, rather than waiting several days, only to find himself confronted by long queues, hyperinflation and a lack of commodities. Instead, Paul and Tanya go out for brunch.

A day or so later, when Paul is beaten up, though not particularly seriously, he and Tanya nonetheless decide that the sensible thing to do is to cross Vancouver in the dark, to visit the emergency room. The emergency room provides the first set-piece demonstration of how awful things actually are out there but one is left with a sense that Paul still doesn’t quite grasp what is going on around him. This feeling persists as he finds himself caught up in the cult of the Awakened and then, in a recapitulation of Masen’s journey with Coker, to find Miss Durrant’s community, when he makes the journey across Vancouver to visit the Cat Sleepers. Paul, one can’t help noticing, leads an oddly charmed life whenever he does venture outside. Despite his lack of awareness of what’s going on about him and his unerring ability to get into difficult situations from which he nonetheless always manages to escape; one is forced to the conclusion that this results from authorial fiat rather than arising naturally from the situation.

Masen’s narrative of his journeys provides a vivid account of the infrastructure of civilisation gradually crumbling, and owes a fair amount to earlier narratives such as Richard Jeffries’ After London, Paul’s narrative of his journeys through Vancouver and what he finds owes rather more to the likes of J.G. Ballard; a gazetteer of bizarre behaviour, brought on by lack of sleep, occasionally coloured by Paul’s own experience of being under intense mental pressure. Yet, while Ballard unerringly pinpoints the strange beauty embedded in collapse, and his portrayal of mental collapse is imbued with a sense of the humanity still lurking in the madness, Barnes’ portrayal of Vancouver on the brink of madness feels very superficial by comparison, as if, once again, he is dealing with the ‘look’ of sf.

Yet, tempting as it might be to simply dismiss Paul as a disorganised loser, the point here is surely that this is how most people are likely to react in such a situation. Indeed, Barnes could be read as going for the realist option – people are inevitably unprepared – but in doing so, he places himself in opposition to the most common sf model, that of curiosity, competence and resolution of a sort. One might then suggest that Barnes is deliberately writing antithetical science fiction, maybe even providing a critique of more conventional sf. Paul’s one piece of hypothetical strategising consists of taking over a millionaire’s mansion and holing up until it’s all over, as so often seems to be the case in a certain kind of sf novel, though here Paul has no particular mansion in mind, and one suspects he is just parroting things he has read.

But if Barnes is deliberately interrogating the nature of sf, he does so on the basis of a series of very crude dichotomies. Quite apart from the many differences between the protagonists, in terms of outlook and occupation, while Masen roams across south-east England, documenting the effects of the disaster, Paul is apparently trapped in Vancouver, unable to get through the streets or over the bridge, into the wilderness. Masen rarely encounters other people aggressively fighting for their lives whereas Paul simply can’t get away from them. Masen gets the girl and a ready-made daughter while Paul loses his partner – to be precise, in a rare moment of what might be called compassion he murders her to spare her what is likely to come – and later … I can only call it ‘sets free’ the child that Tanya had almost forcibly adopted at the beginning of the crisis. (The surviving children have become mute and have vanished into Vancouver’s parks to live.)

By the same token, we might read the novel as a critique of late capitalism, in the sense of it demonstrating how quickly the familiar structure of our lives can now collapse if an unconsidered variable suddenly arises, be it sudden endemic insomnia, or a Chancellor of the Exchequer accidentally creating a non-existent petrol shortage, particularly as it possesses that infallible marker of late capitalism, the zombie. The apocalyptic scenario might suggest that but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is actually a distraction, a canard. Which is itself problematic in that the reader has already been invited to address the book in a certain way, and a reader familiar with Trope is most likely to read the novel in the light of Trope. What I do not see are any indications that I am being intentionally encouraged to read against Trope.

What I think I do see, however, is a more subtle novel about manifestations of belief, buried inside a farrago of science-fictional notions that actually make little sense. The key to this novel is Charles, ‘an outsider always looking for a way in. But no one would let him in.’ Instead, according to Paul, everyone treats Charles ‘as though he were fictional.’ More to the point, Charles is clearly acutely aware of this. When sleeplessness suddenly impinges, Charles seizes the opportunity to begin to promulgate a new philosophy that he has developed, drawing on the manuscript of Paul’s book, Nod, which as luck (and again authorial fiat) would have it, Charles found when Paul accidentally left it in the café. Whatever Charles’ social failings, he appears to be an attentive reader, possibly Paul’s only reader, to judge from sales, and he quickly latches onto the portrayal of Nod, the empty land, east of Eden, site of Cain’s exile after his murder of Abel, and Paul’s linking the orphan words he’s writing about with ‘old unmanned realities’, to create a philosophy in which the sleepless are in fact the Awakened. Paul’s manuscript literally becomes his bible, while Paul himself, despite the complication of being a sleeper, is elevated to role of prophet or front-man for Charles in his moment of glory.

The question, though, is whether the novel needs an apocalypse in order to facilitate Charles’ brief moment in the sun, as leader of a rag-tag group of insane people, about to die from lack of sleep. The argument might be that it is only when society has reached a suitable state of collapse that the Charleses of this world can find their way to the front, but does it need a huge, inexplicable and indeed unnecessary worldwide event for Charles to seize his moment? I remain unconvinced that it does. Indeed, what strikes me most about this novel is that all the various groups come into being so very quickly, to such a degree that one suspects that many of them already existed. Why should it take a huge event like worldwide sleeplessness to trigger their takeover? Why not something like a large American city which has lost its manufacturing base, and much of its population, is now part deserted and on the verge of bankruptcy? No need for sleeplessness, nuclear strikes or any of the other ideas Barnes comes up with.

But what, then, is Nod trying to do? It is difficult to find any sympathy for Paul. He’s not even a particularly interesting misanthrope so much as a whiny, needy man-child who likes to show off the fact that he knows lots of unusual words. One might admire his candid disavowal of humanity but in order to disavow it one needs to engage with it in the first place and know it before writing it off, whereas Paul seems to have conscientiously spent as much of his life as he can simply hiding away from it. In his writing, he performs in a way he seems unable to do in person, even by his own admission. His ‘diary’ insofar as it is a diary and not a reconstruction made a couple of weeks into the crisis, is written with an awareness of audience that is quite stomach-curdling in its archness.

This, of course, is character performing as character, but quite apart from considering this novel to be poor science fiction, I think it is also rather poor fiction generally. Bear in mind that Paul is an etymologist, a man who thinks about words and their meanings. In his journal, he writes ‘Everything’s akimbo: heads flop, tongues loll, and mouths are corkscrewed holes’. The alert reader knows that ‘akimbo’ means to stand with your hands on your hips. The alert etymologist would surely also know this. Granted, meaning may drift, but less orthodox use of akimbo generally still invokes limbs at angles, not the floppiness suggested here. Can it really be that we have an etymologist with a tin ear? Or is the author overdoing things a little?

I did at one point try to argue myself into believing that Barnes was trying to show that Paul is indeed a poor writer but this overlooks various other things, such as those moments when authorial fiat allows Paul to wriggle out of a tight creative space, enabling him to conveniently leave the manuscript in the café or allows him to lower the child Zoe in a basket he’s conveniently found, on a rope he’s conveniently got, from a fourth-floor balcony without the slightest mishap, not even rope burn, given that Zoe is supposedly about four years old and presumably a reasonable weight. Now this may just be the sf reader in me monitoring for plausibility, but even so …

But mostly, I find myself thinking about the novel’s ending. The first-person narrative, the diary format, the hinted decision to die (through starvation? Or has he found some drugs he’s not mentioned?), the touching description of lying down on his bed, on his back. The list of things he must now say goodbye to … have you ever tried lying on your back and writing fifteen lines of prose?

So, Nod fails as science fiction so far as I’m concerned but even if one reads beyond that it still fails. It’s a literary salmagundi, a grab-bag of fictional bits and pieces but there is nothing to bind it together to make a coherent whole.

‘We were all monsters and bastards and we were beautiful’ – Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.

91007-seraphinaI had an odd moment of déjà-vu when I began reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina.Its narrative tone reminded me intensely of something else, and I eventually realised that it was Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time (1939). At first glance, it would be difficult to find two novels with less in common but I do think they have certain similarities, which raises some interesting questions about the way in which children’s (or teen or young adult) fiction has or hasn’t changed over the last seventy years. They also have one very obvious difference which will be addressed in due course.

Uttley’s novel is either a ghost story or time-travel, depending on how you choose to frame it; its main character, Penelope Taberner Cameron, is sent to recuperate with relations who live in the ancient Derbyshire farmhouse of Thackers (Dethick, in reality, and now owned by Simon Groom, one-time Blue Peter presenter). Uttley’s childhood memories and her great love of the history and country customs of her home county are very much to the fore in her evocation of life at Thackers, and her emphasis on the persistence of old practices, domestic and religious.

The house was once owned by the Babington family, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth became the focus of a plot, organised by Anthony Babington, to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from imprisonment at nearby Wingfield Manor. It is to this historical moment that Penelope finds herself travelling, a process managed simply by her walking into a room or turning a corner in the passage and finding she has gone back in time. Through her the reader learns the story of Anthony Babington though, perhaps wishing to spare her child readers some anguish, the story closes before Babington is imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed in a fashion so horrible Elizabeth ordered his co-conspirators to be hanged instead. Instead, we are left to breathe easy because snow has concealed the tunnel’s entrance, while Francis, Anthony’s younger brother, who has fallen in love with Penelope, as she has with him, is, we are told, making plans to go to Paris, as the young men of Catholic families so often did.[1]

Seraphina, on the other hand, could be described as an out-and-out fantasy. It deals with the life of Seraphina Dombegh, the only child of a father who is both emotionally absent and over-protective, and a mother who died giving birth to Seraphina. Through her own determination, Seraphina has pursued an education – she is a talented musician – and has found herself a job as assistant to Viridius, the court composer. What drives the novel, however, is the need to discover the murderer of the Prince of Goredd, a mystery in which Seraphina, although by her own admission, a nobody at court, becomes involved. Goredd’s death threatens the peace that has been established between humans and dragons, some of whom live among the humans, taking on human form.

So, let us begin with the similarities between the novels. Both are told in the first person, though from what point in the narrators’ lives is hard to tell. The tone in each case is detached, cool, leaning towards the analytical, as though they are observing the experiences of their younger selves with a certain wry amusement at the follies of youth.

Both protagonists are solitary, bookish, imaginative, the difference being perhaps that for Penelope it is actively her choice and she doesn’t seem to mind either being alone or else being thought odd. Indeed she seems to be proud of her strangeness; in a family of three children, and the youngest to boot, it marks her out, makes her distinctive. Seraphina, on the other hand, is by her own admission incredibly lonely. Her solitary life has been forced on her by her father, for reasons which have only recently become clear to her. Throughout her life he has seemed to obstruct her every wish and she has, according to her own account, been forced to find ways round his prohibitions, often forcing him into acquiescence by directly challenging him.

In older children’s books, serious illness often prompts the transformation which places the child in a position to begin their adventures. In the case of A Traveller in Time, both of Penelope’s visits to Thackers are precipitated by illness, while for Seraphina, witnessing the Treaty procession in which the dragons shed their human form brings about the first of her mysterious visions, and causes a physical transformation, namely the appearance of scales, and hence the revelation that her mother was a dragon and she is thus part dragon. However, whereas for Penelope it is a time of excitement and discovery – her Aunt Tissie knows about the ghosts, is aware that Penelope can see the Babingtons and is thus a kind of guarantor for her safety in that other world – for Seraphina, the dangers only multiply as she must now conceal her scales as well as learn to cope with the side-effects of her visions, which are severe. Her guide in this new world in which she finds herself is her uncle, Orma, a dragon constantly under scrutiny for his undragonlike behaviour (of which more in due course) and thus less helpful as a guarantor of her safety, though he is not entirely without resources.

Another thing which marks both narratives is what one might call privileged access. In Penelope’s case, she has extraordinary contact with all levels of society at Thackers and though it is initially noted that she should not be in this place or that, it is remarkable how quickly everyone accepts her intermittent presence, even though her tie to the place is through Cicely Taberner, the housekeeper and a servant, albeit a very powerful one. One might argue that Penelope’s friendship with Francis Babington grants her a kind of social passepartout but even that friendship is effectively a narrative contingency. The narrative does to some extent acknowledge Penelope’s extraordinary privilege, and at least one character is deeply suspicious of it, although cast as the villain of the piece for making the point that this is all wrong, but Uttley mostly seems engaged in trying to elide or excuse the point.

Seraphina, on the other hand, although she might well have more right to claim some sort of privilege, given her father’s role, given her talent, given her job (and through that access of a sort to the members of the royal family) can’t stop pointing out that she is a nobody. Of course, she has been taught to be as self-effacing as possible as a survival mechanism, but there is something about this constant underlining of the fact that becomes wearing in the narrative. (We see a form of this privilege again in the way in which Seraphina’s dragon blood manifests itself, with her scales neatly, conveniently, appearing on those parts of her body that can be covered; no visible disfigurement will impair her ability to function.)

And the point is, in both narratives, that Penelope and Seraphina need this level of access in order to tell their stories. It’s a matter of narrative contingency but in the case of Penelope in particular we’re being asked to take a rather large step in terms of willing suspension of disbelief in accepting this situation, though it can in part be balanced by the belief that Penelope is dealing with ghosts or, just possibly, figments of her own imagination. For Seraphina, this is real, and indeed in deadly earnest, as her own safety may depend upon it.

And, finally, there is the upstairs-downstairs romance with, in Penelope’s case, the added difficulty of its also being across time and therefore doomed to failure. Which, of course, it should be, the implicit moral in A Traveller in Time being that one must know one’s place, in time and socially. There is no way that Francis and Penelope could ever have married, even had they been in the same time period. The message is clearly that one can dream but that is all one can or should do. Anything else would be inappropriate. For Seraphina, however, things are different: Lucian Kiggs, the bastard prince, can show an interest in her, an interest which she can in theory reciprocate, though of course her mixed parentage may well get in the way of this. On the other hand, Kiggs’s illegitimate status may offset that. Nobility of birth is in this instance trumped by outsider status.

So far, so good. This is a narrative pattern that has demonstrably persisted for more than seventy years, and probably longer than that. It’s a serviceable narrative template, conventional, familiar, if not that demanding and for Uttley’s novel, it provides the solid structure to support the all-important domestic and historical detail. But I find myself wondering why Hartman is still using it.

However, it is here that the stories do begin to diverge, on what might be called the political level. The Babington family and their loyal servants, including the Taberners, are already out of step with the times by keeping to the old Catholic ways, and an educated reader knows that the weight of history is already against them. The plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots will be discovered, the fate of Anthony Babington, and indeed of Mary herself, is already known. Without transforming A Traveller in Time into an alternative history, which is clearly not Uttley’s intention, there is no other way the story can be played out. Whatever Uttley’s political and religious views might be, I am sure her attachment to the story has more to do with its Derbyshire setting and childhood memory than with any need to make redress for the treatment of Catholics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Uttley knows how her story will play out and is content to interpolate it into the broader sweep of history, without questioning its presence.

In Seraphina, things are much more complex and troubling, politically and theologically but first it might be worth looking at the world in which Seraphina lives. The setting might be most aptly described as ‘cathedral city gothic’. At times it reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge’s Towers in the Mist and The Dean’s Watch, and on occasion Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, while at other times there is a quick dash of something steampunkish in the quigs’ love of mechanisms. On the whole, though, we’re dealing with something ‘medieval’ in the sense that it has all the visible trappings of medievalism: characters wear ‘houppelandes’, there are knights, albeit banished ones, and the presence of a Christian church much engaged with saints. Goredd (and note the Celtic inflection of that double d) seems to be a mature medieval world which has persisted for many centuries, although technology seems to have remained mostly in stasis among the humans, and yet, at the same time, there is something that smacks of children’s fairytales; take, for example, the almost ethereal loveliness of Princess Glisselda, whose name smacks of something from Disney. This society may be coherent within fictional terms, but I doubt it persists beyond the book.

And here indeed be dragons. Dragons that can transform themselves into human shape if need be. Dragons that have signed a peace treaty with the humans. Dragons who have sophisticated technologies. Dragons who live among humans, though rather as we might equip a cat with a bell to alert its potential prey, and a leper with a bell to warn people away, so dragons come equipped with bells to alert us to the fact that they are not what they seem when they are moving among humans (except, of course, for the few given permission to conceal their origins). I wonder how many people raised an eyebrow when they read ‘Orma didn’t need facial hair to pass (12)’ or at the point where Orma speculates as to whether the saints whose writings inveigh against human-dragon miscegenation (and this word is used specifically) ‘had experience with half-breeds (36)’. We are no longer in a world where a girl can dally artlessly with an historical character but in a world where something altogether darker is taking place.

But how are we supposed to read the dragons in this novel? Hartman’s choice of terms like passing prompts me to think first of the Jim Crow laws and light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Similarly, when I see ‘half-breed’ I immediately think of how this word is used with reference to Native Americans, and in particular how half-breeds have often been seen as outsiders in native and Anglo-European society. Should I read the quigs, the dragons who cannot transform, as representing for undocumented immigrants and border-crossers? For that matter, given that faint hint of Celticism in Goredd, do we read the dragons as Welsh, oppressed yet again by the English? And that’s before we get on to the form of Christianity practised in the novel, a mix of the Celtic and the Catholic, filled with many obscure saints, not a few of whom appear to be dragon-slayers, or useful when one needs to invoke religion in order to attack the Other. One might in passing think of the right wing’s appropriation of St George’s flag; one might think also of how a crudely God-fearing community turns against a belief.

Dragons are of course the traditional fairytale enemy of humanity. We have dragons who must be appeased with human sacrifice, and dragons who dispense wisdom, dragons who represent order, dragons who symbolise chaos. In Seraphina, we have two extremes. On the one hand, the quigs lurk on the edges of society, like beggars, barely able to communicate with anyone, shunned by pretty much everyone where possible. They are, if you like, the descendants of Tolkien’s Smaug – only the nature of the hoard has changed. On the other, the dragons are disguised as humans, but not so far as I can see, lower-class humans. They have a diplomatic or academic role, mediating between dragons and humans, studying humans. They are represented as unfailingly logical, baffled by the morass of human emotions. They appear to be thinking machines made of meat. They are essentially Other.

The reader’s contact with dragons is of course mediated through Seraphina, the half-breed, positioned as the bridge between the two groups, but it is a very particular view. For all that Seraphina protests that she is a court nobody, for all that we are told that Orma is not a conventional dragon, we are nonetheless dealing with people who possess privilege, who are variously protected, people who are atypical within their communities, and we are then expected to use this as the point from which to extrapolate ideas about all dragons. Even in fictional terms this is too easy, too reflexive.

One might argue that Hartman is making the point that this is what we already do, but that argument can be countered by saying yes, so why do it all over again? One cannot overlook the fact that this novel is told exclusively from a human point of view; even Seraphina is identified from the beginning as a human with dragon scales rather than as a dragon with human skin. We never see the dragons on their home ground. To parley with humans they must mimic humans. The frame of the argument is always human, never dragon. To sympathise with the dragons is not only to fraternise with the enemy but also, perhaps, to become like them. On top of that, the view we receive is broadly that of the governing classes, the insiders. The ‘lower orders’ are anxious about the presence of dragons, even though many of them are far too young to remember the war with the dragons, thus it is not clear what their anxiety arises from. The Sons of St Ogdo roam the streets, pretty much looking for dragons to beat up. One is, I think, invited to substitute other names in that sentence, and to an extent the analogy exists, but it is a crude, one size fits all, approach, and one could wish that Hartman had been bolder in dealing with this. Her intended audience would, I’m sure, be sufficiently sophisticated to handle it.

As if this external struggle weren’t enough, we must also deal with Seraphina’s struggle with the voices in her head. They are not, as we might suppose, hallucinations or visions but actual voices, the thoughts of other human-dragon … what do I call them? Mixed breeds, half breeds, hybrids? Shall I be coy and say ‘those with dragon blood in them’, as though they’ve had a transfusion? Is there even a word for them? Does there need to be? Except, of course, we must delineate the differences, with words, with labels. Hartman settles for ‘half dragon’, a term with pros and cons, depending on your viewpoint.

As it turns out, there’s a fairly large group of half dragons, passing for human, some even in the court itself, but also apparently representing human diversity in that they are male, female, not all from Goredd (at one point Seraphina notes how one of them, Lars, speaks Goreddi as though his mouth is full of pebbles; there is no sign of her attempting to speak Lars’s own language, which seems to be related to German, so we can throw another binary opposition on the rapidly increasing pile). As Seraphina’s hallucinations are transformed into people it is perhaps worth noting that some of them at least exercise autonomy so they aren’t precisely Seraphina’s ‘gang’ but the sense of her authority persists.

And on top of all that, there’s also a murder mystery to solve, almost the least interesting thing about the whole novel, although it is a competently executed mystery thriller. On the other hand, there is no denying that the novel’s ending is as convenient as that of A Traveller in Time. Seraphina and Kiggs may be in love with one another but he is also Princess Glisselda’s fiancé and she is now a terribly young ruler of Goredd and needing all the help she can get. For now, Kiggs and Seraphina must bide their time; this is another relationship which must remain invisible.

So, what to make of Seraphina, a finalist in the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for first novel? Entertaining? Yes, very. For all it seems to reach right back to Uttley’s novel, I like the narrative tone, and Seraphina is, in her way, a narrator appealing in her determination to succeed and in her honesty about her struggle. Intelligent? That’s more problematic in that Hartman is dealing with difficult issues, which I applaud, but in ways that frequently make me deeply uneasy. It’s a well-written novel, one overflowing with thoughts and ideas, but one which always pulls back just when things are getting satisfyingly complicated.

Which leads me finally to ‘progressive’. Is this novel actually progressive? Superficially, it might seem to be, given the issues it appears to be tackling, but as I hope I’ve shown, superficiality is very much the problem. We skate across the surface of the issues rather than going into them in too much detail, and we tackle them from a very particular point of view: bluntly, a white Euro-American point of view. The subaltern dragon is mediated through the mimic human. The assumption, no matter how little it is actually articulated, is that human form trumps dragon form. Dragons need to learn from humans, particularly about such complex things as emotions, but humans seem not to need to take anything from dragons. Even the dragons regard humans as superior.

And then there is the narrative structure: however embellished it might be we still have a narrative shaped by privilege, and a romance that can never come to fruition because of the relative imbalance between the statuses of the two participants.

In all, this is a novel that could have gone far but doesn’t go far enough.

[1] I have found it difficult to establish what happened to the historical Francis Babington, though he was later described as being ‘unthrifty’, which is presumably in part why the house and lands passed out of the family during that time.

Bridging the Gaps II

More things I found on the internet

Animated Short Film about the History of Typography

John H. Stevens follows up on Paul Kincaid’s near-legendary article on the ‘exhaustion of sf’, discusses ‘exhaustion as an ever-present part of the artistic process’ and speculates on what happens next.

Worlds Without Ends has a nifty compilation of all the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlists.

And while we’re about the Clarke Award, Tom Hunter, the Award’s director, has gathered together most of the coverage of this year’s award, won by Chris Beckett for Dark Edens here.

Jess Nevins in the LARB on a new edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s Classic Stories, ed. by Roger Luckhurst. I’ve not yet seen the edition but Luckhurst apparently situates Lovecraft as part of the Weird. Nevins disagrees. I’m agnostic until I see the introduction.

And Roger Luckhurst himself on ‘H.P. Lovecraft and the Northern Gothic Tongue’

A short story by Karin Tidbeck, Sing, available at the Tor website, and well worth reading. The below-the-line comments, not so much.

Thought-provoking article at Strange Horizonsfrom Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: So what do you think of my story where I made use of another person’s culture?