Unsung Live #7

I’m delighted to join the line-up of authors for Unsung Live 7 on Tuesday 21 February, an evening of storytelling for fans of contemporary speculative fiction. The evening runs from 7.00 – 9.00pm at The Star of Kings (126 York Way London, Greater London N1 0AX, London).

If you’re interested to attend, it’s a free event but space is limited so you’ll need to sign up here.

You can find out more about Unsung Stories – a fiction imprint of independent press Red Squirrel Publishing – on their website here.

Reading recommendations from 2016

Looking back on the year’s reading, below are a few recommendations from books I’ve loved in 2016. The majority weren’t originally published this year and one which I’ve been lucky enough to read in advance is published in 2017. They’re all brilliant books and as usual it feels impossible to rank, so I’ve listed in the order I read them:

do-no-harm
Do No Harm
by Henry Marsh (W&N, 2014)

Life, death and brain surgery: a searingly honest account of Henry Marsh’s life and work as one of the UK’s most foremost neurosurgeons. This came with oodles of hype and lived up to every ounce of it. Heartbreaking and inspirational.

speak-by-louisa-hallSpeak by Louisa Hall (Orbit, 2015)

One of those novels that deserved far more attention than it seemed to receive. The multiple narratives span several centuries, from a young Alan Turing to a creator of artificial intelligence now serving a prison sentence, tied together by the voice of a discarded AI who has learned about humanity through the stories she has absorbed. 

wolf-borderThe Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, 2015)

An eccentric landowner decides to reintroduce wolves to his estate in the north of England. This is a beautiful meditation on nature and landscape, and the most evocative writing I’ve come across about pregnancy. Hall’s language is always divine, and the final images of this novel have lingered with me all year.

house-of-journalistsThe House of Journalists by Tim Finch (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Dark humour abounds in this tale of a house for refugee journalists seeking sanctuary in London, having fled from oppressive regimes around the world. I loved the clever use of narrative that pulls together the different characters’ stories, and the novel’s themes feel ever more pertinent since it was first published in 2013.

the-boat-nam-leThe Boat by Nam Le (Canongate, 2009)

The opening of this collection, which takes a character with the author’s name attending a writing workshop in Iowa, subverts and satirizes the expectations of what a Vietnamese-born Australian writer should write about, and stakes the writer’s claim on the short fiction form. Seven marvellous stories located around the world in an explosion of startling imagery.

central-stationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, 2016)

Fractured novel exploring the lives and loves of a cast of characters living in the shadow of a future space station in Tel Aviv. Tidhar creates a wonderful tapestry of moods and emotions with some extraordinarily powerful scenes such as a robotnik soldier’s memories of war. Hope to see this on some awards lists next year.

dear-thiefDear Thief by Samantha Harvey (Vintage, 2014)

In the middle of the night, a woman begins writing a letter to her best friend who disappeared over a decade ago. A gloriously written exploration of betrayal and forgiveness and one of the best depictions I’ve read of the complexities of female friendship.

 

the-thing-itselfThe Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2015)

Roberts combines philosophy and thriller in this clever, entertaining and enviably stylish exploration of Kant and the Fermi Paradox. The central narrative is interspersed with often heartbreaking accounts of characters caught up in the ramifications of the thing itself, and wonderfully written throughout. An absolute joy.

dreams-before-the-start-of-timeDreams Before The Start of Time by Anne Charnock (47 North, 2017)

Charnock’s third novel is a beautifully nuanced exploration of future developments in fertility science. The science underpinning the narrative is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the novel to shine on the neuroses of its large, three-generational cast of characters as they struggle to come to terms with the decisions of their parents. As with her previous novels, Charnock is marvellous at communicating a huge amount in a short space. Look out for this in April next year.

Now We Are Ten

NewCon Press celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and I’m delighted to have a story in one of several anthologies commissioned to mark the milestone. Here’s the table of contents for Now We Are Ten, edited by Ian Whates: 

now we are ten_cover1. Introduction by Ian Whates
2. The Final Path – Genevieve Cogman
3. Women’s Christmas – Ian McDonald
4. Pyramid – Nancy Kress
5. Liberty Bird – Jaine Fenn
6. Zanzara Island – Rachel Armstrong
7. Ten Sisters – Eric Brown
8. Licorice – Jack Skillingstead
9. The Time Travellers’ Ball – Rose Biggin
10. Dress Rehearsal – Adrian Tchaikovsky
11. The Tenth Man -– Bryony Pearce
12. Rare As A Harpy’s Tear – Neil Williamson
13. How to Grow Silence from Seed – Tricia Sullivan
14. Utopia +10 – JA Christy
15. Ten Love Songs to Change the World – Peter F Hamilton 
16. Ten Days – Nina Allan
17. Front Row Seat to the End of the World –  E. J. Swift

Cover artwork is by the brilliant Ben Baldwin, who also produced my US covers for Cataveiro and Tamaruq.

You can order the anthology through NewCon Press here or via Amazon here.

Happy birthday, NewCon!

Strata launches

StrataI’m very happy to have a piece of short fiction in a new digital project from Penguin Random House: Strata, launched this week. You can take a look here.

A digital book about the future, Strata explores a dystopian world through pairings of short fiction and non-fiction essays, with stories by Laurie Penny, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar. My story, “A Handful of Rubies”,  takes the theme of food.

Strata is created in partnership with Lex and Editions At Play, directed and illustrated by Tommy Lee Edwards, with music and sound design by I Speak Machine. It’s designed to be read on a smartphone, but can be viewed on a desktop too.

Here’s a video of me talking about the project:

 

2015 Reading: The Year in Review

I set myself a goal of 40 books for 2015 and I’m at 43 at the time of writing. I’ve read some fantastic books, old and new, this year – here’s a few recommendations:

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven lived up to the hype. I was drawn in by the concept: a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, but what has stayed with me is the exquisite characterization and before-and-during transitions as the catastrophe unfolds. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad word about this book.

mechanique coverAlso set against a post-apocalyptic landscape, I adored Genevieve Valentine’s steampunk Mechanique. Hands down the best circus-themed novel I’ve read.

Anne Charnock’s debut novel and Kitschies finalist A Calculated Life is a quietly mesmerizing coming-of-age tale which lingers after the reading. The (unrelated) follow-up, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, has just landed on my doormat and I can’t wait to get to it over Christmas.

EscapeFromBaghdad-CoverPromo21Another brilliant debut was Saad Hossein’s Escape from Baghdad!, a rollercoaster of a novel whose post-invasion Iraq setting is combined seamlessly with a hunt for the secrets of immortality. The dark humour emphasises rather than detracts from the seriousness of the underlying text. Surely one for next year’s Kitschies lists?

prettymonsters_kellylinkTwo revelatory authors for me this year were Sarah Hall and Kelly Link, neither of whom I’d read before. I was blown away by the writing of Hall’s The Carhullan Army. At once fierce and lyrical, this is a dystopia which packs a huge punch in a short space. Her latest novel, The Wolf Border, is first on my list for next year’s reading.

Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters left me green with envy; a note-perfect example of the use of the fantastical in contemporary settings. I’m really looking forward to her latest collection, Get In Trouble, currently out in hardback.

karenjoyfowler_weareallYou can’t really write about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving the game away, but suffice to say I adored this: the self-aware narration, the careful consideration of moral conundrums, the humour and the tears. Gorgeous.

Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is published two different ways: I read the 15th Century painter Francesco del Cosso’s story first, followed by George’s present day narrative. This beautiful meditation is my favourite of Smith’s work to date.

hamid_howtogetfilthyrichMohsin Hamid is an author I’d been meaning to get to for a while; I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist and immediately afterwards bought How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the latter of which had me in tears at the end. Hamid is a superb stylist, able to convey volumes in the tautest of sentences.

In science fiction, I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: a structural and philosophical delight.

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium was an incredibly clever use of narrative structure, and beautifully written to boot.

newman_icecreamstarSandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star left me somewhat divided: this 900+ pages epic is worth the read for the voice alone – the use of language is searingly good – but its relentless bleakness and somewhat meandering plot left me struggling a little towards the end.

I’d been challenged to read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, which I went into a little apprehensively, having no idea what to expect, and ended up enjoying immensely.

atwood_stonemattressI’m still waiting for the paperback edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, but her new collection The Stone Mattress served as a perfect reminder of what a superlative writer Atwood is. Addressing the ageing process with wit and grace, this is dark humour at its best.

Hilary Mantel is another writer I need to read more of: her memoir Giving Up The Ghost is sharp, satiric, a linguistic joy and utterly heartwrenching.

I took Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum on holiday and was blown away to discover it was her debut novel. Like another of my favourite writers, Jennifer Egan, Atkinson has a wonderful gift for combining humour with serious subject matter; this was a joy.

egan_thekeepLastly, I used up my Jennifer Egan credit finishing the last of her backlist, The Keep. Towards the end I had one of those moments of sitting bolt upright and declaring out loud, ‘Damn, but Egan is such a ridiculously clever writer’. And she is. I’m now desperately waiting for whatever comes next from this phenomenally good novelist.

All in all, 2015 was a pretty brilliant year for reading. Here’s to 2016!

Fantasy in the Court and Nine Worlds 2015

I’m looking forward to two events this week – on Thursday 6 August, I’ll be at Fantasy in the Court in the evening alongside a host of SFF writers. Fantasy in the Court is hosted by the marvellous Goldsboro Books (Cecil Court, London) in association with Hodderscape. Find out more and book tickets here.

Friday 7 – Saturday 9 August is Nine Worlds Convention at the Radisson Blu Edwardian, Heathrow, London. This is my first time at Nine Worlds; according to the website: “It’s about gaming, film, cosplay, fandom, literature, science, geek culture, meeting people and having a really big party.” (Sounds good to me.) I’ll be there Saturday and Sunday and participating in a panel on Sunday afternoon:

“The Stars My Destination” – Exploring the Future of SF – 1.30pm – 2.45pm, Sunday 9 August
We’re living in a science fiction world, where technology and global warming are changing things faster than sci-fi writers can type: so where does the future of sci-fi sit?
Gavin G Smith, Paul McAuley, E. J. Swift, Matt Suddain, Naomi Foyle

Exciting! You can find out more about Nine Worlds here.

In conversation with Speculative Fiction Author Anne Charnock

ACharnockPortrait

Anne Charnock

I met Anne Charnock (@annecharnock) last summer when we shared a panel at LonCon 3, with David Hebblethwaite and Adam Roberts, discussing writers who cross the boundary between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

Since then, I’ve completed my trilogy, The Osiris Project, and Anne has finished her second novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind. Anne’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award 2013 and The Kitschies Golden Tentacle 2013.

We felt it was time for a catch-up chat—about past writing and future plans.


Anne—
So, E.J., we’ve both written fiction in which climate change is part of our world-building. Tell me how you became interested in this subject and the part it plays in your trilogy The Osiris Project.

E.J.—Climate change was something I’d had a growing interest and awareness of for a few years, and then I read Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and that was really a game-changer for me. The geo-political scenarios it hypothesizes were at once utterly horrifying but also, from a fiction writer’s point of view, fascinating. I’ve always been drawn to isolated landscapes – the bleak but beautiful. When it came to writing The Osiris Project, I had the world map in mind very early on – a world radically altered by climate change, with borders redrawn and civilization shifted towards the poles. And that underpinned so much of the trilogy, in terms of character, society, political agendas, particularly in the second novel, Cataveiro.

Anne, how important was climate change as you were developing the world of A Calculated Life? Because as a reader, it feels like a noticeable but very subtle element, which I loved – for example, the vineyards, olive and citrus groves surrounding Greater Manchester.

ACalculatedLifeAnne—In any dystopia there are winners and losers—in terms of wealth and freedom—and it’s the same with climate change. I felt it would be interesting to locate my dystopian world in a region benefiting overall from climate change. In my imagined future world, Manchester and the north west of England become the new Tuscany of Europe. I’ve been tuned into climate issues for many years because I studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, home of the Climatic Research Unit. I remember ice-cores being delivered to the department for historical climate analysis. And in 2006, I helped launch the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in the community where I live. It’s now an exemplar for grassroots action thanks to the community’s enthusiasm. So far we’ve cut our carbon emissions by 25% through behaviour change and we’ve set up a Community Energy Company to generate power from solar energy. Our primary school now has free electricity!

Now that I’ve written two standalone novels, E.J., I’d love to know how you approached writing a trilogy. When did you realize your subject was too big for a standalone novel? And was it instantly clear to you how to break the narrative into three books?  

E.J.—I actually wrote Osiris as a standalone novel in the first instance, but when it came to submitting to agents I had a feeling I’d be asked about plans for sequels, and I left the story deliberately open-ended. The only thing I knew about the second book was that the location would move to outside Osiris, with an almost entirely new cast – I didn’t want to end up writing three variations of the same book, but rather to expand the canvas and the narrative points-of-view with each installment. But then I had so much fun with Cataveiro, the challenge in the third book was pulling everything back together, when my mind wanted to be off exploring an entirely different story! I think if I ever did another trilogy (and it’s definitely not on the cards anytime soon) I’d approach it quite differently. I love those trilogies where you might have hundreds, even thousands of years between books. And hopefully I’d be more organized too…

By contrast, I think you’re doing almost the opposite with your current novel, in terms of structure? Can you tell me a bit about the approach you’ve chosen, and why?

Anne—I spent several years mulling over this novel—Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind—before I settled on the structure. One of my main themes is the nature of success including, more specifically, how women’s achievements have tended to be overlooked. I decided to write three inter-weaving storylines set several hundreds of years apart. A trilogy of sorts!

I hoped this fractured structure would create a sense of immediacy. It’s proved both a challenge and immense fun to write. The settings are Renaissance Florence, present-day China and a future London in which The Academy of Restitutions is attempting to lift women out of undeserved obscurity.

My first novel, A Calculated Life, is dystopian science fiction so, as you can see, I’m now moving into new writing territories—that of contemporary and historical fiction. How do you feel about entering new territory—switching to standalone novels following the success of your trilogy? Do you feel it’s a risk?

E.J.—I’m really looking forward to the era of standalones, I like the containment of the single novel. Of course you can’t guarantee readers who liked one book will automatically be interested in the next, but that goes for series too. I think perhaps the greater risk is moving around genres – the book I’m currently writing has a contemporary setting, and it’s quite different in tone to The Osiris Project books, though it also contains speculative elements. One writer I really admire for this versatility is Genevieve Valentine, whose novels aren’t constrained to any one genre – she’s gone from steampunk circus to 1920s prohibition to future eco-thriller, and seems to be able to turn her hand to any subject material.

I should say I’m a big fan of multilayered and intersecting narratives (writers like David Mitchell, to cite an obvious example) and I absolutely love the sound of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Both of your novels have explored future projections – would you say you’re naturally drawn to the speculative in writing (and in art!), or is this just coincidence?

Anne—I think I’m naturally drawn to speculative writing because it offers a huge canvas. Having said that, I prefer to create plausible scenarios. In my new novel the main characters are connected to the art world—I’m making use of my background as an artist—and two of the main characters are based on real people in Renaissance Italy. I feel the future storyline in my novel is perfectly plausible.

Your current work-in-progress, E.J., brings to mind Ben H Winters’ novel The Last Policeman in terms of setting because Ben’s premise is science fictional but it’s really a contemporary novel! There’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and the story imagines how people react when they know the world will end in a year’s time. I find that combination of contemporary fiction and speculative fiction extremely engaging so I can’t wait to see how you bring them together.

Sometimes I test my ideas in a short story—for example, to try out a different style of writing or to find the voice of a character. Your short story “The Spiders of Stockholm” was long-listed for 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Many congratulations. What an achievement! Can you describe the attraction of short form for you?

E.J.—Thanks, Anne! That was the loveliest surprise – I’d completely forgotten my editor had even submitted the story. “The Spiders of Stockholm” was part of the Irregularity anthology from Jurassic London, who are a joy to write for because they always put together such thought-provoking briefs (in this case, the tension between order and chaos in the Age of Enlightenment).

I don’t feel that I’m a natural short story writer, so I like having some ideas to springboard from. But one thing I love about the form is the opportunity to hone your language at the editing stage, whereas with a novel it feels like there’s always something that escapes you. Having said that, some of my favourite novels are short story collections in disguise, like Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, or Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and I’d love to write something in that vein one day.

Have you published your short stories, and if so, where can we find them?

Anne—My short story, “The Adoption”, will be published this autumn in Phantasma an anthology of horror, SF, urban fantasy and paranormal fiction, including stories by J.D. Horn, Roberta Trahan, Kate Maruyama and Jodi McIsaac Martens.

Other than that I’m currently hoarding several drafts of short stories—more like vignettes. They’re on a single theme—how human relationships will be affected by advances in human reproduction technologies. I’m a huge fan of fragmented narratives and I’m now inclined to incorporate these vignettes in larger piece of writing, possibly a full-length novel.

One of my favourite examples of fragmented-narrative writing is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and I’ll definitely read Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. Thanks for the recommendation. I do feel that short form and split narratives suit me as a fiction writer. It’s possibly a throw-back to my days of rattling off short pieces of journalistic writing. Having said that, short fiction requires a great deal more honing that journalism deadlines ever allowed.

Let’s have another conversation, E.J., when some of our plans have played out. And good luck with your current writing.

Anne’s new novel, Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind, is published by 47North in November 2015. You can pre-order it here and find out more about her work at her website.