What We're Reading: July 2016


Apex Book of World SF 1

I’ve been reading this on my phone, making the most of bus journeys and the myriad lost 10 minutes London introduces into your life, and it’s been a rewarding process. This collection is edited by Lavie Tidhar which in my experience typically means you’re in for an inclusive selection of stories – some formally interested and lyrical, some pulpy as all hell and all of them off-kilter.

The stories Tidhar picks are a syncretic collection of genres which makes for an interesting collection. Particular highlights were:

  • ‘The Bird Catcher’ by S.P. Somtow - This tale of befriending demons takes a look at the other side of Empire of the Sun when you’re not on the winning side. It’s particularly strong for the character relationships at work, between grandfather, grandson and demon and looks into how societal legacies are passed down generations by individuals.
  • ‘Ghost Jail’ by Kaaron Warren – A weird horror tale about communal memory, where a journalist visits a small settlement hoping to understand the eviction and ghosts of the earth. It has a lot to say about the failings of redevelopment plans, cultural appropriation and how we come to terms with the traumas of other people.
  • ‘Cinderers’ by Nir Yaniv – This is a bizarre story about Hewey, Dewie and Louie who take great delight in murder and arson. It’s got a mad looping structure, like Samuel Beckett writing scripts for Portal. There are tough questions under the absurdity as well, about violence, culpability and guilt. Compelling stuff.
  • ‘Into the Night’ by Anil Menon – Another story about ageing and communication between generations, but perhaps less optimistic than The Bird Catcher. It’s an elegant story though, about how we get left behind and what that means. It’s as much proto-cyberpunk as it is a universal comment on the need for compassion and respect for our elders.

All in, it’s a strong collection and pleasingly hard to predict. I’ll be checking out the later volumes at some point as well.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

If ever a book was a labour of love? This is one I actually heard about long before it was published because of Darran Anderson’s excellent Twitter account. The project is immense though – an account of all the cities mankind has conceived of, both real and imaginary. Discussing everything from Babel to Rapture and a host of stuff in between, it’s a gargantuan piece of work.

It really does cover a vast amount so I won’t try and explain that here but suffice to say it’s an inclusive philosophy (MegaCity 1 gets as much love as Le Corbusier) and includes many pertinent angles. Ultimately it’s an argument for us to view cities as a giant syncretic mass of all sorts of different intentions, dreams and ideals. Each building comes with its own ideology and history and the psychogeographical impact of the resulting conurbation is a fascinating thing to unpick. Anderson's city becomes a living historical document for the aspirations and nightmares of societies as much as what actually happened. Arguments to view cities as ideal or flawed, organic or mechanical, insane or perfect are all aired.

The combination of these myriad individual works is what becomes compelling though. For the most part, architecture is about making life better for people and Anderson collects countless different interpretations of what that means. And don'd forget, every dystopia is a utopia for someone. It’s enough to make you take up an interest in architecture.


Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane

Landmarks is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the intersection between language and landscape – although it’s a book that delivers something different to what you might expect.

How we understand the nuance of place, our specific landscapes and environments, through our language is fascinating, and the issue of the death of regional speech and dialect is a crucial one. Losing our vocabulary of the natural world means we no longer can see that natural world as a diverse and multifaceted system. We lose touch, and those environments come under threat – you can’t care about, let alone protect, the things you have lost the ability to describe.

From the opening chapter I thought the book would be a deep exploration of this topic; but instead, in each chapter Macfarlane focuses on another significant writer in the canon of place/nature writing and their relationship to the landscapes they made their own. So I’d recommend Landmarks mostly as a primer for writing of this kind, rather than a real look as the issue of language loss.

One big failure of this book, for me, is the lack of discussion of some of the right-wing, racist or otherwise misanthropic views that MacFarlane admits some of these writers held. John Muir’s (the famous American champion of the Sierra Nevada in California) view of nature had no place for Native Americans. Jacquetta Hawkes' A Land had an unpleasant tinge of blood & soil British belonging. J.A. Baker (author of the brilliant The Peregrine) appears to have been a bit of a misanthrope. These issues are glossed over when they should be interrogated, not treated as aberrations from an imagined perfect world of place-writing but as a dangerous part of it, issues that need to be challenged and corrected.

Still, it will give you a lot of interesting stuff to read and the chapter on J.A. Baker – being such a fan as I am – alone made it worth reading. 


Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been dipping in and out of this collection by Joanna Walsh this month and marvelling at the glacially strange, compact short fiction that manages to transform the mundane world into something bizarre and almost fearful. It’s destabilising and stark in its portrayal of women peering into a world they do not seem to be a part of; proof you can achieve lasting impact in a just a few pages.

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

I loved Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake. It was one of the most formally daring and thematically dense novels I'd ever read and it asked some deep and probing questions about Englishness and ideas of belonging. The story of a doomed band of Anglo-Saxon ‘Green Men’ fighting the Norman invasion was thrilling and ultimately heartbreaking.

Beast is the middle part of Kingsnorth’s trilogy about England (1000 years in the past, in the present, and a 1000 years in the future). This novella – it is, despite what the blurb says – is set in the present day, concerning a voluntary outcast living a ramshackle life on an English moor. I guess the moor to be Bodmin, but it doesn’t really matter – we’re dealing with archetypes here. As our tramp battles with existential crises and recovers from a mysterious assault (big scratch marks anyone?), his language slowly debases and loses its punctuation marks, and he starts to see the mysterious beast of the title. A huge black cat, the monster we wish existed that we know cannot. He tracks the creature and the creature tracks him. In between there is much philosophising about nature and mankind, delirious and violent visions, with a good dose of apocalyptic misanthropy thrown in.

Beast is a hugely ambitious piece of fiction and formally, in terms of what Kingsnorth does with language, is thrilling, poetic and experimental in the right way. However, it's not quite as original as some reviewers have made out. The book is very similar in theme and style to Runt by Niall Griffiths – though in that novel there is a much greater joy in life to be found, that makes it, for me, superior.

I find some of Kingsnorth’s politics troubling, and that combined with the doomy atmosphere of the book made Beast an excellent, but certainly not perfect, read.


The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions

Before we start, yes that is his real name, and yes it is funny.

This long short story/novella/whatever was a favourite of eminent weird writers like Algernon Blackwood and allegedly Lovecraft (though the internet disputes this). Despite Onions’ criminal overuse of ellipses, and the story’s occasional melodramatic nature, perhaps fitting the time in which it was written (1911), this is an excellent example of what can be achieved with the slow and patient approach to the ghost story.

The solitary writer/recluse/artist going losing the plot due to supernatural forces, or their own declining mental state, is a well trodden theme, but this is a powerful example of the form.