The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

(I’m still catching up with SF classics I missed first time round.)

Inspired by the excellent TV series, I finally got round to reading Margaret Atwood’s classic novel of religious dystopia. I’m sure everyone knows the set-up by now – a near-future New England, in which the US government has been overthrown by an extreme, Christian theocracy. The story focuses on Ofred, a handmaid, whose role is to serve the family of a powerful member of the elite, and to try to bear a child for him, through regular ‘ceremonies’, in which she is forced to have sex with him (toe-curlingly described, in a way that makes you feel sorry for everyone involved).

The television version was so tense that after each episode, I found myself releasing a long breath and wondering how I could face the next one.

If anything, the book is even more tense. Ofred’s thoughts flit from present to past erratically in a thoroughly convincing evocation of the mind of someone utterly terrified that the slightest mis-step, or word out of place, could be fatal. I don’t know how convincing the future world might have seemed in 1986, but in 2017 it is eerily on the money.

How did I miss this back in the 1980s? Atwood is a writer with a lot of mainstream credibility, by no means confined to a genre. But it was nominated for a Nebula and won the Arthur C Clarke award, so is clearly science fiction. I think – to my shame – that at that young age I probably assumed the book was not for me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I probably saw it as a ‘women’s book’, and passed by.

My loss, which I’m glad I’ve now put right. A big thumbs-up and eight out of ten.

Writing Fifty One

Half a mile from my home is Lewisham High Street. There’s nothing special about it – shabby, even by London standards: a street market, people getting on and off buses, phone shops and chain stores. It’s seen better days.

One day that definitely was not better – indeed, it was probably the street’s worst – was Friday July 28th, 1944.

Continue reading “Writing Fifty One”

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2014)

[I’m catching up with SF classics I have missed.]

I suspect there is little I can say about this. Ann Leckie’s debut won just about every award going in 2014, and I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t yet read it.

Sometimes, when you come to a book that has been so highly praised, it can be off-putting. There’s a little internal voice that says, ‘go on then, impress me.’ And if you aren’t immediately grabbed, you might turn against it.

I had no such problems here – this was fantastic. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the set-up. The protagonist, Breq, is the sole remaining part of what was once a group of ‘corpse soldiers’, part of a hive-mind military unit controlled by the AI that runs a troop spaceship on behalf of an expanding galactic empire. The book tells the story of her seeking revenge against the person who betrayed her, and also in parallel the story of that treachery.

I was utterly gripped from page one. The storytelling was engaging and compelling. I was so impressed with the way Leckie made the reader care deeply about the characters, even while playing all sorts of tricks with gender, point of view, individual consciousness. I especially liked the way the main character referred to everyone as female, even when noting that some people appeared to be male! (This appears to have annoyed some readers, but I thought it was funny.)

The far-future society was suitably strange, and sketched convincingly by the author, without going overboard on exposition – the focus remained strongly on the characters and their struggles. Breq, as the remnant of an artificial intelligence controlling a cadre of zombie soldiers, ought to be thoroughly inhuman. But Leckie gives her warmth and character, and a humanity that outshines that of some of the more ‘normal’ characters.  The occasional line such as, ‘I’m not human, but my body is’, made me laugh out loud.

A definite 9 out of 10, and I expect I will read the two further books in the trilogy.

When I Close My Eyes – New Story in Interzone

It’s always a kick to have one of your stories hitting print, but I’m especially pleased that my latest story, ‘When I Close My Eyes’ is out this month in the UK’s longest-running (and best) science fiction magazine, Interzone.

I will confess: I’ve been trying to get a story in Interzone for ages, but they kept turning me down. The editor, Andy Cox, is rightly a demanding man. Anyway, you know the old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, make a bloody nuisance of yourself!

The story is probably my ‘hardest’ SF yet; set on Saturn’s moon, Titan, and featuring some fragile but peskily well-organised alien lifeforms. (There’s still a ghost in it, though, which I guess means that as SF goes, it isn’t that hard!)

You can buy Interzone here. If you subscribe – which you really should – you can even get this issue free.

 

How to be Invisible – New Story in Cold Iron

New from Iron Press is Cold Iron – Ghost Stories from the 21st Century.It’s edited by Peter Mortimer and Eileen Jones.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to be at the launch, which took place at midnight on Saturday 10th June, in the atmospheric St George’s Church, Cullercoats. But I am pleased and honoured to have a story in the book.

It’s a short and sad tale, called How to be invisible.

I don’t write many of them these days, but I’ve always had a soft spot for ghost stories. I remember a job interview once, when the panel picked up on the fact that I wrote fiction in my spare time. When I said I wrote ghost stories, I was very pointedly asked why. As if this quirk made me unsuitable for responsible employment.

I think I rambled. It didn’t seem sufficient to say, ‘It’s what I like’. I distinctly remember at one point advancing the thesis that ghost stories were a metaphor for the way in which the present is shaped by the past. So they were a perfectly logical pursuit for someone with a history degree. * I don’t think I had ever thought about that before the words tumbled from my nervous lips, but even now I think it’s mostly true.

Most of what I write falls into two broad categories: ghost stories or science fiction. And I think the two genres are fuzzy mirror images.

In most ghost stories, events in the past reach into the present. Nothing can ever be said to be finally over and gone, especially where powerful emotions and bad deeds are involved. So, when you write a ghost story set in the present, you are inevitably also writing about the past.

Science fiction is a bigger and woollier beast, given the range and diversity of its settings. But I think it is generally recognised that the most powerful SF stories are metaphors for issues in our own times. So, while SF may be set in the future (or sometimes in the past, or a parallel timeline), it resonates when it is really about the present.

When Ursula Le Guin wrote about the fantasy city of Omelas, with its happiness dependent on the misery of a single unfortunate child, she was saying something about inequality and injustice in our own world. When Samuel Delany wrote about sexless spacers in Aye and Gomorrah, does anyone think he wasn’t really writing about sexuality in the 1960s?

Perhaps this begs the question of why I don’t just write about the past or the present, if that’s what I mean. I’ll have to think about that.

Having said all that, I’m not entirely sure How to be Invisible is actually a ghost story. But don’t tell Iron Press! You can in any case read plenty of proper ghost stories, with a modern twist, in the book, which is well worth your time.

If you want to buy a copy (and you should!), Cold Iron is available here

[*I got the job!]

Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland (1975)

This was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t quite fit into my category of SF-Classics-I-missed-in-recent-years. It came out in 1975, when it was nominated for a Locus award. So it ought to have been picked up in my peak juvenile SF-reading years. But I missed it back in the day, and nowadays it mostly appears on lists of lost and neglected classics.

Another book that had rested undisturbed for a couple of years on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf. Until recently, I regularly passed over it in favour of other books. Mainly, I think because I knew nothing about Cecilia Holland. This is apparently her only science fiction novel, among many reputable historical fictions.

If you’re only going to write one SF novel, this is a pretty good one to have on your roster.

The set-up is simply stated: thousands of years in the future, in a solar system where anarchism is a settled system of ‘government’, Earth has been largely damaged in some past disaster, and humanity has spread to other planets. The civilisations of the inner solar system are troubled by raids from the Styth, a race of mutants descended from early pioneers to the outer planets of Uranus and Saturn. Paula Mendoza accepts a mission from the ‘Committee of the Revolution’ to negotiate a treaty with the Styth. This she does in an unorthodox way, going on to spend many years living among the Styth, and acting as ambassador between them and the inner worlds. She also skilfully builds a role as adviser to the Styth leader in the brutal politics of his people.

I found so much to enjoy and admire in this book. Unusually for a science fiction novel, the future world is drawn very subtly. There are big and imaginative ideas here, but the world-building is left in the background. We learn about the characters through their actions and their reactions to the world around them, not through interior thoughts or monologues. Holland doesn’t trouble to explain how the domes of the ruined Earth work, nor how the world came to be wrecked. Nor does she linger over the technicalities of the way the Styth live in the inhospitable environment of the outer planets. The prose is taught and spare, and we see the world as the characters do, in the moment.

There are important themes of race and sexism, explored thoughtfully and subtly. Mendoza herself is a fascinating – and at time frustrating – character, who embodies a convincing way of operating – anarchistic in a plausible, real-life way in her refreshing disregard for rules and authority, rather than the caricature some other writers might have offered.

It’s a big, sprawling story, wide in scope and vision, but intimate in its focus on realistic people, grappling with realistic problems in fantastic circumstances. Vividly written, with tight dialogue. The 600-plus pages fly by.

I see from a glance at Amazon and Goodreads that the book divides readers: plenty of rave reviews, but some people absolutely hate it. Sure, it has flaws (I was never quite sure what motivated Mendoza, the ending was a little flat and inconclusive for me, and it’s very much a 1970s conception of the far-future). But I’m definitely more on the rave end of the spectrum. Shame there was never a sequel. Maybe someone could have a go…

A well-deserved 8 out of ten for me.