British Fiction Focus

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Has it really been a week since the last time we did this?

Answer: it has! To wit, it’s time for another edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus, Tor.com’s weekly column dedicated to news and new releases from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

We begin this instalment with the winners of the Kitschies, which you’ll probably have heard about already… but I couldn’t not touch on the conversation about progressive SF brought to bear by the awards.

Also in the news this week: the star-studded radio play based on Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere; a very special Cover Art Corner, featuring an exclusive first look at an exciting new debut; the announcement of Eowyn Ivey’s next novel; plus, I surprise myself by expressing interest in something related to Stephanie Meyer.

Leading the week’s new releases, Tom Holt does a Doughnut, Matthew Hughes has Hell to Pay, and the inaugural volume of The Split Worlds looks lovely. Stay tuned, too, for the latest from several speculative heavyweights including Terry Brooks and Robin Hobb.

There’s all that and much more to behold in this week’s edition of British Genre Fiction Focus!

 

NEWS

The Kitchies Court Progressive SF

The community has been abuzz with the thrum of discussion ever since the winners of The Kitschies were announced, mere moments too late for me to feature the news last week. Most of you, therefore, will have heard who took home the tentacles already, but for anyone who hasn’t….

The Red Tentacle for Best Novel went to Nick Harkaway for Angelmaker, to which I say, well judged, judges!

Meanwhile, the Golden Tentacle for Best Debut went to Karen Lord for Redemption in Indigo. This doesn’t surprise me, but I would have given the lovely Lovecraftian plush to Tom Pollock for The City’s Son instead, and rewarded Lord at a later date for The Best of All Possible Worlds, a fiction far superior to her first.

For its “outstanding contribution to the conversation surrounding genre literature,” the discretionary Black Tentacle was given to Lavie Tidhar on behalf of the World SF Blog, a truly invaluable source of information from the international genre fiction front.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Finally, the Inky Tentacle for Best Cover went to Dave Shelton for the simple yet salient frontispiece—pictured opposite—of his own novel, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. Honestly, I’d rather have seen great art rewarded than striking graphic design—and given that it showcases both, La Boca’s cover for The Teleportation Accident seemed to me the obvious winner—but beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder, so I’ll just shut up.

Looks like everyone who attended the ceremony had a great time in any event, thanks in no small part to the organisers, I don’t doubt… but also copious quantities of Kraken rum! Oh, to have been there, eh?

As it happened, all this was but the beginning of the debate that’s taken place in the week since the ceremony. Just as the originators of the Kitschies had hoped, according to this comment:

The goal of The Kitschies is to encourage and elevate the tone of the conversation around genre literature and geek culture. Which is a rather pretentious way of saying that we don’t just want to push good books—we want to create more opportunities for people to talk about them. Er. Goodly. We’re not trying to pick the “best” science fiction or even the “right” book, but instead to celebrate those authors who are pushing themselves—and literature in general—to produce intelligent and progressive books while still staying true to genre fiction’s long tradition of providing great entertainment.

This year’s winners are a great example: they’re books that can be shelved anywhere in a bookshop, beg to be picked up, are a delight to read and spur amazing conversation.

Conversations such as this one, for instance, wherein the award-winning author of Angelmaker considers what progressive speculative fiction really is:

The word is not “achieved” or “enlightened,” but “progressive,” implying a striving and a journey. For me, then, progressive fiction is—or is the product of someone who is—trying to be better, trying to make fiction better, and trying to make the world better. It acknowledges that most things we’re told are stable states—peace, equality, justice, happiness—are really verbs and processes, and they must be maintained and supported or they fade. It is a fiction which connects the inner human future with everything it must have around it, and recognises that the two develop together. It is fiction which dreams wildly and hopefully, and then at least begins the work of making the dream real.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Lavie Tidhar took a different tack after accepting a tentacle for the World SF Blog. Standing on stage at the Free Word Centre in London to do so last Tuesday sparked this thoughtful discussion about diversity:

I was looking out on a sea of white people. Of familiar, talented, friendly and wonderful people, yes, editors and publishers, agents and writers. Who were, predominantly, British (obviously) and some Americans. And outside, the receptionist—the one black woman at the event.

Of course, the debut novel award went to Karen Lord—a black woman from Barbados—but she couldn’t be there. And the shortlist included one translated novel, too. The Kitschies try very hard to be a more inclusive award, and it’s hard, with so few international authors published in the UK.

But it bothers me, because how can I accept an award for promoting, or trying to promote, diversity, when it is not present in the body of the judges? [When] it is not present in British genre publishing, and was so glaringly missing from the audience last night?

To join the dots between Tidhar’s and Harkaway’s argument: perhaps diversity is not very well represented in the British genre fiction community as yet, but if progressive SF is indeed “fiction which dreams wildly and hopefully, and then at least begins the work of making the dream real,” then surely we can consider The Kitschies a positive step towards addressing that embarrassing absence.

Good on the Kitschies for bringing these sorts of dialogues—and many more—to the fore. If you ask me, this is what it’s all about at the end of the day: not the awards or the omissions, nor the authors or the novels, but the conversations we have because of all of the above.

So. Shall we have at it?

 

Cover Art Corner: Exclusive Triple Threat Special

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

I have not one, not two, but three lovely new covers to show you all this week… the first of which is poised to adorn the debut of Scottish author Libby McGugan, whose ambition, having “enjoyed a mixed diet of quantum physics, spirituality, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg […] was to grow up and join the Rebel Alliance in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Instead she went to Glasgow University and studied medicine.”

Oh well. But wait… it wasn’t all for naught—of course not!—because in November, Solaris will be publishing her fascinating first novel, The Eidolon. And in case the eye-catching art opposite hasn’t already sold you on this SF debut, here’s an exclusive first look at the back cover copy:

When physicist Robert Strong loses his job at the Dark Matter research lab and his relationship falls apart, he returns home to Scotland. When the dead start appearing to him, Robert begins to question his own sanity.

Vincent Amos, an enigmatic businessman, recruits Robert to sabotage CERN’S Large Hadron Collider, convincing him the next step in the collider’s research will bring about disaster.

Everything Robert once understood about reality, and the boundaries between life and death, is about to change forever. And the biggest change will be to Robert himself…

Mixing science, philosophy and espionage, Libby McGugan’s stunning debut is a thriller like no other.

Roll on November, right?

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

This week’s second unveiling comes courtesy of the fine folks at Angry Robot, via the excellent SF Signal. Look upon The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu and wonder about the backstory this arresting image alludes to.

Here’s the blurb:

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain—an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions—the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix—the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well….

The Lives of Tao is coming in May, by the way.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Last but not least, Guy Gavriel Kay gave us a glimpse of the provisional cover art for the British edition of his awesome next novel, River of Stars.

I’ve featured the synopsis of said in the British Genre Fiction Focus already, so we won’t waste space repeating it this week, but the cover of HarperFiction’s edition certainly does evidence the imprint’s attempt to mainstream Kay’s latest.

What do we all think about this?

Well, if the self-evident scaling back of the fiction’s more fantastical elements stands the slightest chance of bringing Guy Gavriel Kay to the attention of the mass market, I’m absolutely fine and dandy with the decision to do so. In advance of my review for Tor.com, let’s just say the more people that read this book, the better.

The physical edition of Rivers of Stars won’t be out in the UK till July, alas, but—again to their credit—HarperFiction will be publishing the e-book day and date with the North American (and Canadian) release of this remarkable return journey to the broken kingdom of Kitai.

 

Eowyn Ivey Explores Uncharted Alaska

In other news, Tinder Press—a shiny new fiction imprint out of Headline—has bought the rights to release Shadows of the Wolverine in the UK.

Sadly, there will be no adamantium in this particular novel; I dare say dear old Logan will have to wait a little longer to make his literary debut. You see, Shadows of the Wolverine is something else entirely… specifically the successor to The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, who was named the International Author of the Year by the last National Book Awards.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

So what can we expect from Ivey’s newly-announced second novel?

Shadows on the Wolverine tells the story of an adventurer who travels deep into unexplored Alaskan territory to discover that native legends are real and have come to life. The story unfolds through diaries, newspaper clippings, letters and apocrypha. It is inspired by an actual 1885 military expedition.

[Publisher Mary-Anne] Harrington said: “Eowyn is a real original—a unique storyteller with a distinctive imagination and a wonderful ability to connect very directly with her readers. This new novel promises to play to all of her strengths, and to take her into exciting territory as a writer.”

There’s been no news yet on when we’ll be able to read Shadows of the Wolverine, but rest assured that you should. The Snow Child—which was also set in Alaska, where the author hails from—seemed to me a fine folksy fairytale, as charming as it was disarming.

If Shadows of the Wolverine is even half as impressive as its predecessor, it’ll still be something special. One to watch, I warrant.

 

Two Books Become Movies, Plus Bonus Neverwhere News

Britain has played host to two particularly prominent figures from the genre fiction industry this week.

To begin with, for the first time since 2007, Stephanie Meyer was in the UK yesterday. The sparkly vampire whisperer stopped off at Waterstones in Piccadilly, specifically—to sign copies of The Host, of course. How better to pave the way for the release of Gattaca director Andrew Niccol’s forthcoming adaptation?

(Which despite myself I’m actually interested in.)

And because no edition of the British Genre Fiction Focus would be complete without featuring Neil Gaiman is some way, shape or form, Deadline recently spilled the beans on a potential film based on his forthcoming fantasy, The Ocean and the End of the Lane.

Looks like Joe Wright—the man behind the exemplary adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement—is interested in directing the thing, if and when it makes its way through development hell… which I wouldn’t bet a penny on at this early stage.

In any case, the estimable author was also in the UK this week, speaking at Cambridge’s Watersprite Student Film Festival and helping the BBC spread the good word about Radio 4’s forthcoming six-part play based on Neverwhere, which begins on March 16th.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

The star-studded cast of this new and no doubt improved take on Gaiman’s story of subterranean London includes luminaries such as baby Xavier, James McAvoy; Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Stewart Head; Natalie Dormer out of HBO’s Game of Thrones; and lest we forget, the great Christopher Lee. All that, plus Benedict Cumberbatch!

Will the imminent availability of Neverwhere overwhelm ye olde iPlayer? We’ll know in less than two weeks.

For the very moment, let’s take a look at some of the books we’ll be reading in advance of the first episode of this sensational-sounding radio play.

 

NEW RELEASES

Doughnut, by Tom Holt (March 5, Orbit)

The doughnut is a thing of beauty. A circle of fried doughy perfection. A source of comfort in trying times, perhaps. For Theo Bernstein, however, it is far, far more.

Things have been going pretty badly for Theo. An unfortunate accident at work lost him his job (and his work involved a Very Very Large Hadron Collider, so he’s unlikely to get it back). His wife has left him. And he doesn’t have any money.

Before Theo has time to fully appreciate the pointlessness of his own existence, news arrives that his good friend Professor Pieter van Goyen, renowned physicist and Nobel laureate, has died.

By leaving the apparently worthless contents of his safety deposit to Theo, however, the professor has set him on a quest of epic proportions. A journey that will rewrite the laws of physics. A battle to save humanity itself.

This is the tale of a man who had nothing and gave it all up to find his destiny—and a doughnut.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Frost Burned (Mercy Thompson #7), by Patricia Briggs (March 5, Orbit)

Mercy Thompson’s life has undergone a seismic change. Since becoming the mate of Alpha werewolf Adam and stepmother to his daughter Jesse, her life finally seems to be calming down. But after an accident in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Mercy suddenly can’t reach Adam or the rest of the pack. All she knows is that Adam is angry and in pain.

With the werewolves fighting a political battle to gain acceptance from the public, Mercy fears Adam’s disappearance may be related—and that the pack is in serious danger. Outclassed and on her own, Mercy may be forced to seek assistance from any ally she can get, no matter how unlikely.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Between Two Thorns (Split Worlds #1), by Emma Newman (March 7, Strange Chemistry)

Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.

The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.

There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.

But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Hell to Pay (To Hell & Back #3), by Matthew Hughes (March 7, Angry Robot)

Meet Chesney Arnstruther. Once a mild-mannered insurance actuary, now a full-time crime-fighting superhero, it’s all he can do to kick bad-guy ass while at the same time holding down a steady relationship with the gorgeous Melda. Something is going on.

Meet Xaphan, wise-cracking demon and the source of (almost) all of Chesney’s powers. He’s been asked by his infernal master to give Chesney whatever he needs… but surely stopping bad guys is not in Hell’s plan? Something is definitely going on.

Meet Arthur Wrigley, a modest yet charming older gentleman whose nasty little hobby is fleecing innocent widows. Meet Simon Magus, ancient mystic and magician from Biblical times now very much enamoured of Vegas, baby. And pray you never meet the Chikkichikk, a proud and ancient race of, well, warrior dinosaurs, from the universe that God made then rejected before He started monkeying around with this one.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

The Holders, by Julianna Scott (March 7, Strange Chemistry)

17-year-old Becca has spent her whole life protecting her brother—from their father leaving and from the people who say the voices in his head are unnatural. When two strangers appear with apparent answers to Ryland’s “problem” and details about a school in Ireland where Ryland will not only fit in, but prosper, Becca is up in arms.

She reluctantly agrees to join Ryland on his journey and what they find at St. Brigid’s is a world beyond their imagination. Little by little they piece together information about their family’s heritage and the legend of the Holder race that decrees Ryland is the one they’ve been waiting for—but, they are all, especially Becca, in for a surprise that will change what they thought they knew about themselves and their kind.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Rat Runners, by Oisin McGann (March 7, Corgi Childrens)

Four young criminals. One simple task: steal a mysterious box from the daughter of a dead scientist. They have to follow her, bug her phone, hack her computer, search her home, all without her knowing.

But WatchWorld runs this city now. On every street are cameras, X-ray scanners, microphones. Terrifying Safe-Guards can see through walls, hear your heartbeat, analyze the smell of your sweat. Their motto? If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.

But Nimmo, Scope, Manikin and FX, who work in the blind-spots of the city’s shady underworld, are soon caught in a maze of deception, treachery and murder… will they make it out of the rat-runs alive?

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Blood of Dragons (Rain Wild Chronicles #4), by Robin Hobb (March 11, Harper Voyager)

Dragon blood and scales, dragon liver and eyes and teeth. All required ingredients for medicines with near-miraculous healing powers. The legendary blue dragon Tintaglia is dying of wounds inflicted by hunters sent by the Duke of Chalced, who meanwhile preserves his dwindling life by consuming the blood of the dragon’s poet Selden Vestrit.

If Tintaglia perishes, her ancestral memories will die with her. And the dragons in the ancient city of Kelsingra will lose the secret knowledge they need to survive. Their keepers immerse themselves in the dangerously addictive memory-stone records of the city in the hope of recovering the Elderling magic that once allowed humans and dragons to co-exist. In doing so they risk losing their own identities, even their lives.

And danger threatens from beyond the city, too. For war is coming: war between dragonkind and those who would destroy them.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Bloodfire Quest (Dark Legacy of Shannara #2), by Terry Brooks (March 12, Orbit)

The quest for the long-lost Elfstones has drawn the leader of the Druid order and her followers into the hellish dimension known as the Forbidding, where the most dangerous creatures banished from the Four Lands are imprisoned.

Now the hunt for the powerful talismans that can save their world has become a series of great challenges: a desperate search for kidnapped comrades, a relentless battle against unspeakable predators, and a grim race to escape the Forbidding alive. But though freedom is closer than they know, it may come at a terrifying price.

Back in the village of Arborlon, the mystical, sentient tree that maintains the barrier between the Four Lands and the Forbidding is dying. And with each passing day, as the breach between the two worlds grows larger, the threat of the evil eager to spill forth and wreak havoc grows more dire. The only hope lies with a young Druid, faced with a staggering choice: cling to the life she cherishes or combat an army of darkness by making the ultimate sacrifice.

British Genre Fiction Focus: Understanding Progressive SF

Rebellion (Tainted Realm #2), by Ian Irvine (March 12, Orbit)

The countries of Cython and Hightspall are at war, with centuries of resentment and evil magic fuelling the flames.

Rix has lost everything to traitors on his own side—his family, his reputation, even his right hand. Even so, he must fight. If he can reach his family’s mountain fortress, perhaps he can save the refugees who follow him, and begin his own resistance.

Tali has been imprisoned by those who wish to use her healing blood, but they may take even more than that. Her life will be forfeit if her captors discover her secret—that she holds the key to winning the war itself.

But Rix’s fortress holds secrets too, and his arrival sets off a chain of events that will bring old powers and figures out of myths back to the land….

 

POSTSCRIPT

I’ll be reading Between Two Thorns and Doughnut, because it’s about damn time I gave Tom Holt a go.

Do any of this week’s new releases appeal to you? Or is there some new book I’ve overlooked?

As usual, a bunch of other stuff has happened besides the core news stories. For starters, Titan Books have acquired two novels by Bram Stoker Award-winner Tim Lebbon, including The Silence, which is apparently about “the end of the world, and the beginning of another.” I do enjoy the odd apocalypse, so I’ll admit my interest is piqued.

Meanwhile, the programme for the 2013 Brighton Festival was unveiled of late, and though there are a few fairly interesting events, the line-up features next to nothing of interest to speculative fiction fans. I just thought you should know.

And before closing, allow me to step beyond the bounds of genre fiction for a moment, to wish a dejected farewell to Mainstream, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been in business for almost 40 years.

It’s so sad to see the industry contracting rather than expanding, isn’t it?

Which with lamentation… the British Genre Fiction Focus comes to a close for another week. Way to go out on a happy note, huh?

But no! Because mere moments before I sent along this article for the powers that be to give it a last pass, Tor UK announced that they had bought a trilogy of young adult urban fantasies, beginning with The Blackheart Legacy, from the former blogger behind My Favourite Books, Liz de Jager. Which is wonderful news. Massive congrats, Liz!

And with that rather cheerier conclusion to this week’s column, I’ll say so long. Till next time, alright?


Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.

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