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Niall Alexander

The British SFF Book Trade on Brexit

Last Thursday, more than thirty million British people turned out to answer a critical question about the UK’s future. “Should we remain a member of the European Union?” was what the government wanted to know, and although Scotland answered in the affirmative—as indeed did large parts of London and Northern Ireland—overall, the numbers said no.

This has already led to a number of potentially great changes, quite apart from the eventual consequences of Brexit itself. Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, a politician from the Conservative camp who campaigned to Remain, is soon to step down, the leader of the Labour party is under pressure to follow in his footsteps, and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has said a second independence referendum is “highly likely.” In other words, the United Kingdom is united no more.

So where does that leave the British publishing industry and its literary luminaries? Let’s start the tally with the latter.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Suicide Song: End of Watch by Stephen King

The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year’s fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King’s determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:

On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. […] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down.

The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They’ve been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don’t force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

[Needless to say, something doesn’t add up…]

Rackamore’s Retribution: Revealing Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger

Has there ever been a better time to be an Alastair Reynolds reader?

Just yesterday I was singing the praises of The Medusa Chronicles, a surprisingly substantial and suitably excellent extension of Arthur C. Clarke’s last short story of note, which the former astrophysicist co-authored with fellow speculative superstar Stephen Baxter.

Fast forward a few weeks and fans of the fella are sure to have their hands full with Beyond the Aquila Rift, an appropriately immense collection of the best of Reynolds’ short fiction. Not long after that, we’ll learn whether or not Slow Bullets—which I called “an excellent effort from one of British science fiction’s finest” in my review last June—can beat out the likes of Binti and The Builders to take home a Hugo Award for Best Novella. And then, in September, Reynolds’ next novel proper will be upon us. It’s called Revenger, and it’s said to be “an epic story of adventure set in the rubble of a ruined universe.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

An Ambassador Between Man and Machine: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

It was in 1971, in the pages of Playboy, in a Nebula Award winning novella which modern masters Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds cast as “perhaps [his] last significant work of short fiction,” (p.440) that Arthur C. Clarke introduced the world to Howard Falcon: a dirigible captain who would have died in the aftermath of his craft’s catastrophic crash if his remains hadn’t been grafted onto the mechanical contraption that would become his body.

Unfortunately for Falcon, there were those who thought a line was crossed by the surgeons that saved him, thus their experiments were not repeated in the proceeding years, stranding the cyborgised captain “midway between two orders of creation,” according to Clarke. In an attempt to escape this isolation, Falcon ventured forth to explore the solar system, becoming, before long, the first astronaut to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter, and meet with the immense Medusae there, as well as the waxy mantas that fed upon them.

He secured his place in the history books in the process—but, as Clarke concluded, Falcon’s role was far from over, for he would go on to be be “an ambassador […] between the creatures of carbon and the creatures of metal who must one day supersede them. Both would have need of him in the troubled centuries that lay ahead.”

[The Medusa Chronicles tells the story of those very centuries]

The Great Catastrophe: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

The epic journey that began in The Passage finally comes full circle in The City of Mirrors, a proper doorstopper of a novel that satisfies somewhat in spite of its sheer size and a hell of a hammy bad guy.

I have such fond memories of the beginning of this trilogy, which paired an awesome and expansive apocalypse—one up there, in my estimation, with the end of the world in Swan Song and The Stand—with a truly heartbreaking tale of loss on the small scale. By the denouement of that book, I had no idea where the story as a whole was going to go, but I knew that I wanted to know. And then… well.

The Twelve wasn’t terrible. It had a couple of a kick-ass action scenes, and some stirring slower moments that allowed Justin Cronin to explore the emotions of his vast cast of characters. But almost every other inch of that many-inched monolith of a novel felt like filler; texture at best and time-wasting at worst. In that respect, The City of Mirrors splits the difference. It doesn’t meander as much as its messy predecessor did, but nor, on the back of such bloat, and with more of its own to add to the tally, can it recapture the magic of The Passage.

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Present Tense: The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

Life is complicated—not least because it’s so frickin’ unpredictable. But there are a few things you can be sure of. One day, you and I will die; come what may, there’ll be plenty of taxes to pay along the way; and, as Isaac Newton concluded, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction will happen.

In real terms, that means that what we do dictates what is done to us. Hurt someone and you can expect to be hurt in turn. Make someone happy and perhaps they’ll pay that happiness back. This behavioural balance relies on our ability to remember, however. Without that… well, what would you do if you knew the world would forget you?

You’d let loose, wouldn’t you?

Hope Arden, for her part, does exactly that in Catherine Webb’s third novel as Claire North, which, like Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before it, is an engrossing, globe-trotting interrogation of identity that sits comfortably between Bourne and Buffy.

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Ashes to Ashes: The Fireman by Joe Hill

Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I’d agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill’s strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it’s also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn’t have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.

And it’s an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.

[It begins with the world burning.]

Are Physical Books Back After “A Bad Attack of Technodazzle”?

The book hasn’t had an easy time of it recently. Here, there and everywhere, headlines have alleged that the death of traditional print publishing is inevitable, and to date, these doom-laden declarations have been borne out by sales data that does indeed demonstrate a decline in the appetites of physical book buyers. But last week, a study by the Publishers Association revealed something surprising: that “sales of print books are rising, while digital sales are down for the first time since the invention of the e-reader.”

A couple of (clearly quite excitable) commentators have taken this to mean that “peak digital” is in the past—that the industry simply “suffered a bad attack of technodazzle” as ebook sales skyrocketed and the trade in printed editions fell commensurately.

[But there’s more to the story…]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Borderlands: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Children of Earth and Sky sees contemporary fiction’s finest fantasist return to the site of the Sarantine Mosaic and the subjects of The Lions of Al-Rassan in a magnificently modest affair more interested in the myriad men and women caught in the crossfire of the holy war that flickers around its fringes than it is that momentous event.

The most apparent casualty of the the conflict so far is the city of cities itself, for just as Constantinople was toppled by the Ottomans, Sarantium in all its unimaginable majesty has finally fallen to the followers of an indomitable conqueror. It’s known, now, as Asharias, “and the man who ruled there amid gardens where silence was apparently the law on pain of strangulation […] wanted to rule the world.” You might imagine his megalomaniacal designs would inspire the several cities in the vicinity to put aside their trivial differences—after all, if Sarantium can be successfully sieged, then nowhere is safe from the Osmanli Empire’s plans to expand.

[You’d be mistaken, I’m afraid.]

2016: An Arthur C. Clarke Award Odyssey

The thirtieth anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the most prestigious prize for science fiction in Britain, is unquestionably an occasion for celebration, but just five years ago, “funding was abruptly withdrawn [and] the award could well have died on its arse,” as Martin Lewis, one of the judges during that painful period, puts it.

Now that the Clarke Award is presumably out of the woods, Tom Hunter, who came on board as Award Director in the wake of that scare, has kicked off a conversation about “the ways we might change the award in years to come,” and let me be clear: the “we” is operative here. Hunter wants as many interested parties as possible to play a part in the resulting discussion.

Where to start? Well, where other science fiction and fantasy awards often offer multiple categories and cover many different media, the Clarke award has always thrived on the simplicity of its proposition: one category, one shortlist, one best science fiction novel of the year. We now receive more submissions than ever before, from something like 40 books a year when I first joined, to more than 100 today.

It’s a formula that continues to work, but we’re not unaware of the changes afoot across the publishing industry and the science fiction community. The big question for us is how do we best play our part?

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Olsem Difren: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar rewrites the rules of the short story collection in Central Station, an ambitious assemblage of thirteen tales tall but indubitably true that are all the more remarkable when read together.

“Substantially different versions” of eleven of the efforts it collects were previously published, in various venues, between November 2011 and September 2014, and the handful of them that I read then impressed me immensely. ‘The Smell of Orange Groves‘ and ‘The Lord of Discarded Things,’ for instance, represented intimate glimpses into the lives of a few of the disaffected folks who call the “bordertown” at the base of the Central Station spaceport home.

[But here, those stories are so much more.]

Gesso on Linen: Zero K by Don DeLillo

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” begins Don DeLillo’s first new novel since Point Omega in 2010, and like the finest opening lines, Zero K’s is soaked through with significance.

Fittingly for a work of fiction interested in “fathers and sons,” this is a remark Ross Lockhart, a billionaire in his sixties, makes to Jeffrey—his aimless heir, and our narrator—as they stand in his opulent New York office, surrounded on all sides by abstract art and other markers of money: motifs readers will encounter repeatedly as they make their way through Zero K. It’s important to note, furthermore, that this phrase is not spoken in the moment, but rather recalled by “a man propelled into obsessive reflection.”

As to the words themselves… well. To own is to possess, yes, but these days, it also denotes domination, and this is what Ross wants: to use his dollars to dominate the end of the world. That’s not to say the apocalypse, but the end of the world as we mere mortals perceive it, at the very end of our selves—in death.

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Announcing the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

There can be only one, ultimately. But we’re a lot closer to knowing what that one will be now that the hundred-some submissions considered for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award have been narrowed down to a shortlist of just six.

Said six were named and acclaimed as part of the opening ceremony of the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival on the evening of the April 27. They are:

  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
  • Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

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J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Book of the Film of the Book

Hold fast to your sorting hats, my fellow muggles and No-Majs across the Atlantic, because “the publishing event of the year” has some commanding company!

See, in addition to the Special Rehearsal Edition of the script of the impending play, namely Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two—which, for what it’s worth, will be withdrawn and replaced with a so-called Definitive Edition at a later date—fans of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world now have another new book to look forward to, as Little, Brown announced yesterday (alongside Scholastic in the States) that it means to release Rowling’s screenplay for the forthcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the day after it hits cinemas.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The Evil Within: HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

An ancient, archetypal evil meets a miscellany of modern motfis—such as surveillance and social media—in HEX, the first of Dutch wunderkind Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s five genre novels (of which this is the fifth) to be translated into the English language.

You may well have heard of the aforementioned author already; after all, he won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2015, and was nominated for another unsettling short story, “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow,” two years previously. HEX is longform horror, however, and longform horror is hard, not least because the unknowable, on the back of which so much such fiction is built, can only remain so for so long before folks get sick and tired of not knowing.

Yet in HEX, we know what would be unknowable in most horror novels from the get-go: the cause and the consequences of the ghost that has haunted the heart of the Hudson Valley for hundreds of years.

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