‘Of Dawn’ out in Interzone 235

Fantasy, Music, My fiction, Short stories, Uncategorized

Much excitement at Allumination Towers as Interzone 235 has just come out. It includes my novella ‘Of Dawn’ – more details / buy a copy here. The story’s been rather beautifully illustrated by Richard Wagner, he’s caught its mood perfectly. Alas, this is the biggest version of it I could find; to get the full effect, snap up your copy of Interzone!

Of Dawn in Interzone 235

And of course, there’s a lot of music in the story. Some of the sounds that helped inspire it are name-checked in the story, but there’s some other very important stuff that (in the end) its protagonist Sarah didn’t run into. I thought I’d share some of it here…

That’s ‘Rattler’s Hey’ by Belbury Poly, from their album ‘The Owl’s Map’. They’re one of the Ghost Box roster of artists – strange and wonderful music from a strange and wonderful label, and a big inspiration for the story.

Brian’s hypnotic, evocative music is all too easy to lose yourself in – I’ve tried and failed to write about it directly, the best thing to do is just open up your mind and listen. Check out more of his work here at his website.


And finally, that’s ‘The Pheasant’ from Matt Berry’s mighty ‘Witchazel’ (imagine Ronnie Hazlehurst’s great lost pyschedelic soul album, and you’re part way there). For more, here’s his MySpace page – plus my ramblings about ‘The Badger’s Wake’, one of the album’s key songs, in a previous blog post.

Worlds of anthologies, anthologies of worlds

My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep

Well, it’s been an exciting few weeks from a writerly point of view. I’ve finished a first draft of the next novel (working title ‘Crashing Heaven’, but I suspect that will change), drafted a novella, had a wonderful – and very productive – time at this year’s Milford Writers’ Workshop, and have the launch of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’ (with my story ‘Golden’ in it, plus fiction from Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Chris Butler and others) to look forward to on Friday.

More later on Milford, and hopefully you’ll see both novella and novel in print sometime soon. Instead of going into detail on them, I thought I’d write a little about ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, as some comments that editor Carmelo Rafala makes in his introduction have been resonating with me quite deeply.

The Immersion Book of SF

He describes wanting to put together an anthology ‘where each story was so vastly different from the other, that I felt like I’d visited a dozen or so different worlds by the time I’d put the book down’. In doing so, he hopes that he’s put together ‘a collection… as varied and entertaining as those I’d read when I was a youth’.

I grew up reading both the more formally recognised classics, and whatever pieces of genre mayhem I could get my hands on. The latter came to me in a variety of ways, often quite accidentally, and usually in anthologies of one kind or another. As Carmelo says, they were a great way of reading very widely, very quickly, and thus discovering just how many different subjects genre fiction could cover, and how many effects it could achieve within them.

My junior school library had stacked issues of 50s educational mag ‘Look and Learn’, buried in boxes. Each one contained a couple of pages of astonishing comic ‘The Trigan Empire’, plus various other marvellous bits and pieces. 2000AD was basically a weekly compendium of wondrous (and highly intelligent) weirdness.

My local library was well stocked with vintage fantasy and SF compilations. I found my favourite book of horror stories (a huge, superbly edited anthology from the 60s) in a jumble sale somewhere. It cost me 50p, and gave me at least ten years’ reading pleasure, if not more. And of course there were the various OUP and Virago ghost story anthologies – Christmas presents from my folks (thank you!).

Anyway, all this vaguely Proustian recollection has a point. I owe my passion for genre fiction as much to this slightly random collection of anthologies as to any more formal reading plan. And so it’s hugely exciting to think that a story of mine is going off into the world in a modern version of one of those collections; and that someone might come on that anthology, either buying it new, or pulling it off a library shelf, or in a jumble sale somewhere, and find in it the kind of formative thrill I found in all those books, all those years ago.

And of course, if you want to explore those strange new worlds yourself, you can pick up your own copy of ‘The Immersion Book of SF’, right here… Happy voyaging!

New story, new gig, new cool thing

Fiction, Gigs, Heaviosity, Music, My fiction, Poetry, Short stories

A quick post, as there’s much news at Allumination Towers this week. First of all, even as we speak the new Black Static is hitting the streets, with my story ‘De Profundis’ in it, plus much other groovy stuff. You can order it from the TTA Press website, and it should also be available in Borders any day now.

Secondly, the recent discovery of a new, super heavy element is actually a cosmic sign that, once again, there’s a Graan gig coming up. We’re playing the Drones Club on Friday, June 19th, at the Others – 6-8 Manor Road, London N16 5SA.

As ever I shall be on vocals, performing over ambient metal mayhem with (after this week’s rehearsal) possibly a bit of Fall fuelled Renaissance blues heaviosity too. I think we’re on at about 9.00pm – alas, won’t be too big a post-gig night for me as I’ve got to be up at 6.30am the next day to help row Henry VIII from the Tower of London to Hampton Court Palace.

And finally, interesting conversations happening this morning about a possible multimedia event in August. No final detail as yet, but it looks like it could be very cool indeed. Watch this space… (and, as ever, KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!)

<EDIT> Black Static 11 is now in Borders Islington, which I assume means that it will also be in Borders across London and elsewhere,  shelved with Interzone.

J. G. Ballard, 1930-2009

Ballard, Modernity, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, Visionary, War

What is there to say?

He showed us strange, alien worlds,  and then we’d look around and realise that we already lived in them. It was a bleak privilege to be a part of the culture he was dissecting, and thus receive his writing in the most direct, most living way possible.

There’s much more to be read about him, and his achievement, here at Ballardian, and the full text of a relatively recent Toby Litt interview with him here.

(first of 6 – others can be accessed here – click on ‘More from Adlefred’ at right and they’re all listed there).

A little housekeeping

Magazines, Short stories

Well, the move is complete, and I’m all settled into the new place, so life – and blogging – begins again. And, more generally, much excitement as my story ‘Changeling’ is available in the current Black Static, and I’ve just heard that ‘Fishermen’ has just gone to print in Interzone 221 – out in a few weeks. And of course, ‘Sohoitis’ is still available in Postscripts. More news soon on the groovy stonepunk story, and something neo-Lovecraftian is crawling squamously towards being ready for submission. More news as it happens – but for now, keep watching the skies! Etc.

‘Ghosts’ lives!

Ghosts, Horror, My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Supernatural

Well, much excitement here at Allumination Central as my short story, ‘Ghosts’ has hit the streets in the latest issue of ‘Midnight Street’ – and it’s the cover story! Which I didn’t know about at all until my copy popped through the postbox, so a lovely surprise.

Anyway… the story’s about the problems of exploring haunted, abandoned weapon satellites on your own, and the cover catches its atmosphere very nicely indeed. And of course there are many other great stories in there – particularly looking forward to sitting down with the Joel Lane, Stephen Gallagher and Andrew Humphrey ones – and an interview with Neil Gaiman. Anyway, enough rambling – check it out (and order a copy for yourself) here.

Oh, and if you came here having read the story, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoyed the story, and have fun rooting round here…

*plumps the virtual cushions, puts on welcoming music, opens a bottle or two of wine, sets out bowls of dry roast peanuts and Kettle Chips*

Cities, alienation, spaceship design and fish

Aliens, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Surrealism

Dead fish 

Space is so often seen as an open field that exists to support some form of vast, optimistic transcendence. But in fact, reality suggests that it will force an almost infinite claustrophobia on us. Surrounded by its empty hostility, we’ll travel it in tiny metal tubes, at best spending only years locked together with nowhere else to go. It’s going to be a surreal, alien experience; but that estrangement will come as we dive deep into ourselves and our fellow space travellers, rather than leap into brilliant externals.

The fish are key to this. Trust me on this.

Anyway… up until now, I’d have said that my favourite take on the oppressiveness of space travel came in A. E. Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known around these parts). Amongst other things a key inspiration for ‘Alien’, the novel spends a lot of time thinking about exactly how best to manage tight groups crushed together, for decades.

But that’s changed, as I’ve just finished James Tiptree Jr’s devastatingly brilliant ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’. In part a psychological inquest into a group of people who’ve come to know each far too well, it takes Van Vogt’s claustrophobia and runs with it in several magnificently psychedelic directions at once, generating a devastatingly effective combination of Lovecraftian existential horror and possible-end-of-the-human-race pathos as a group of advance colonists, fleeing an overcrowded Earth, seek a new planet for the human race to colonise.

No more detail about how JTJr does what she does; rather, buy her wonderful short story collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, and go read. Instead, here’s a passage that caught my eye and made me realise how her understanding of the closeness of space is rooted in a very human sense of how we live with each other in communities of different sizes. Her protagonist, Aaron, is considering an earlier colonist ship – the ‘Pioneer’ – and thinking about lessons learned from its failed, decades long journey from Earth to Barnard’s Star:

‘The people of ‘Pioneer’ had suffered severely from the stress of too much social contact in every waking moment; the answer found for ‘Centaur’ was not larger spaces but an abundance of alternative routes that allow her people to enjoy privacy in their comings and goings about the ship, as they would in a village. Two persons in a two-meter corridor must confront each other, but in two one-meter corridors each is alone and free to be his private self. It has worked well, Aaron thinks; he has noticed that over the years, people have developed private “trails” through the ship.’

What intrigued me here was the implicit definition of a core feature of city life; the multiple ways that we move through cities, the multiple intersections possible as we do so. Implicit in Centaur-space is not just ‘avoidance of people’ but also ‘avoidance of seeing the same people every day’. Privacy in this context is not ‘not seeing anyone’ – rather, it’s ‘only seeing strangers’.

Aggressive estrangement is a key feature of big city life. Moving from Scotland, I was struck by how aggressively Londoners guarded their lack of relationship with each other. More recently H, coming from Seattle, has had the same experience. Of course, I’ve internalised the guarding and now – like any other Londoner – regard anyone I don’t know who tries to break through my shields and have some sort of personal engagement with me as at best dangerously insane. Anyway…

That estrangement is a key driver of surrealism. We don’t just see strangers; we see the strangeness they leave behind, the artefacts that no doubt make perfect sense to them but – shorn of context – become insoluble puzzles to us. Hence the picture of the fish; we found them on Sunday night, lying in the Waterloo Underpass. I’m sure there’s a very logical explanation for them being there, but deprived of that context they became a truly odd presence. A stranger had left them, and so they were strange.

And not just strange. Surreal; alienated from direct meaning; in fact, alien. But at the same time, entirely human; left by a human going about his or her business. Which reminds me of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth’, and which helps me finally understand why I so admired ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’.

In the deepest sense, its characters encounter nothing that is not human, or intimately linked to the human. Its horrors at first appear to be profoundly other but – as the story progresses – are revealed to be anything but. At the story climax, we’re left to face a profound truth; the truest surrealism comes from our own hidden selves, and the only alien is us.

Spontaneously effusing

Fantasy, Literary, Narrative, Short stories

Well, a lovely weekend in Paris – visiting friends, hanging out in the 6e, and once again failing to get to the Sainte Chapelle, one of the finest pieces of Late Gothic architecture in Europe. Hey ho, one day I’ll get there, tho’ I’ll be cursing Dan Brown as I do so. He mentions it in the Da Vinci Code, so there are now permanent queues to get in. Hmmph.

Anyway, I’m whizzing around at high speed today, so it’s a very quick post. I’ve just been listening to a Neil Gaiman / Susanna Clarke interview courtesy of The Guardian, in which he defines a certain kind of short story as ‘miserable people having small epiphanies of misery’.

That’s a great comment, at once a definition and criticism of a certain kind of Modernist / more generally literary writing. When it’s well done (Katherine Mansfield!) it’s fantastic; when not, it’s turgid, depressing and futile. Minute, miserable subject matter becomes an end in itself – questions of quality of writing (‘how well is this done?’) are ignored.

Which raises a very interesting question. Why is subject matter rather than quality of writing so often seen as the only value needed in defining a book’s literary worth? For me, it’s because of a lack of understanding of the craft of writing.

And I’m not sure where that lack of understanding comes from. Perhaps one explanation is that, for all the talk of Modernism and Post Modernism, our approaches to judging writing remain trapped by the great Romantic pose of the spontaneous effusion.

By definition, spontaneous effusing (what an ugly word!) privileges content over form. ‘I was so moved that I had to write this…’ – so content is all and form is ignored, at best a neutral quality, at worst something profoundly restrictive. What matters is the quality of experience that drives the piece, not the quality of the piece itself.

Which throws critical negativity onto anything that’s not directly realist. Whether detective fiction, fantasy, romance or whatever else, such fiction comes not from direct observation of reality but rather from a much more mediated process of working out – of crafting. And, if you believe in spontaneous effusion, you mistrust crafting.

So, much as the Romantic pose is very attractive (‘bring me my opium, my catamite, my quill – I must compose!’) perhaps it’s time to step beyond it and acknowledge that direct observation and subsequent effusion is an aesthetic choice only, and has nothing to do with the qualitative.

Which, come to think of it, once you’ve been to a couple of poetry readings built around dodgy confessional poets is something you really don’t need to be told.

Solomon Kane 2007

America, Fantasy, Politics, Short stories

It’s an odd thing, but when Robert E. Howard (yup, the Conan bloke) wrote his Solomon Kane stories, he provided an uncannily precise analysis of a certain kind of American exceptionalism.

Solomon Kane is a sixteenth century Puritan with a thirst for justice, who travels the world righting wrongs. He’s occasionally assisted by an aged Voodoo priest; he carries (the original) Solomon’s wand, introduced in a wonderfully offhand way; and he always fights evil, and he always wins out.

At one point, in ‘The Moon of Skulls’, Howard gives a very interesting description of Kane’s character and motivation. Here are the key elements:

‘He never sought to analyse his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings… A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, and avenge all crimes against right and justice.’

The contrast between the universality of Kane’s goals and the limitations of his methods is fascinating. Implicit in his character is a lack of a need for knowledge, a sense that by just acting he’ll be right.

You can read that as an illustration of Nietzsche’s ‘noble morality’, whereby the strong perceive any action they make as being by-definition right – but it comes alive politically when you compare it with the famous ‘reality based community’ quote.

Journalist Ron Suskind, interviewing an unnamed White House insider in Autumn 2004, was told that:

‘guys like [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which [the insider] defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’

Here, too, is a rejection of a judicious, empirical study of reality – ‘cold and logical reasonings’ – for something far more impulsive. It’s implicit in the rhetoric, which neatly separates thinking from doing: ‘we’re history’s actors… and you… will be left to just study’.

It’s the Solomon Kane ethos writ large, expressed at the level of empire rather than person. I’ve always felt that much US pulp fiction is America dreaming about itself – but who’d have thought that Robert E. Howard could ever have dreamt of the Neo-Cons with such force and precision?

A heart of darkness

Fantasy, Novelists, Short stories, Surrealism

Felt a bit bummed out yesterday, so that inevitably made me think of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’, the book that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown over New Year 1999 / 2000.

Normally, I love William Hope Hodgson. His berserk imagery, unhinged sense of space and time, and deep nautical experience (at times he comes across like the bad acid Joseph Conrad) combine every so often to produce utter pulp magnificence.

‘The House on the Borderland’ is an acknowledged classic, helped kickstart H. P. Lovecraft, and more recently has been namechecked by Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and China Mieville, amongst others. ‘The Ghost Pirates’ is a genuinely haunted tale of subtle nautical mayhem, stuffed to the gills with memorable imagery and authentic sea-lore. The ‘Carnacki the Ghost Finder’ stories are just plain strange (and newly reprinted by Wordsworth Classics) – and so on.

But ‘The Night Land’ is in a different league. It’s set in the far future; and the sun has died. The remnants of humanity inhabit a giant, illuminated pyramid, the Last Redoubt. Everywhere else is darkness. Terrible creatures surround the pyramid, watching and waiting… And then, a signal from the last survivor of another, previously unknown redoubt is received. The narrator sets out to find her.

That’s really it for plot. You don’t read ‘The Night Land’ for seat of the pants narrative thrills; you read it for its crushing, strange, intense atmosphere, battling through its bizarrely contorted prose to do so. The conviction with which WHH images his dark, possessed future world, and the claustrophobic grimness of the creatures that hide in it, are remarkable.

I couldn’t finish it; it was too much for me. So I don’t know how it ends, and I haven’t formed a deep critical view of it, beyond awe at its atmospheric potency. So, here’s a quote from it, to give you a sense of its unique qualities:

‘And so, in a few minutes, I was at the South-Eastern wall, and looking out through The Great Embrasure towards the Three Silver-fire Holes, that shone before the Thing That Nods, away down, far in the South-East. Southward of this, but nearer, there rose the vast bulk of the South-East Watcher – The Watching Thing of the South-East. And to the right and to the left of the squat monster burned the Torches; maybe half-a-mile upon each side; yet sufficient light they threw to show the lumbered-forward head of the never-sleeping Brute.

To the East, as I stood there in the quietness of the Sleeping-Time on the One Thousandth Plateau, I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again – a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.’