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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2016)

April 28, 2017

I warn you now… this week’s piece is a bit of a monster both in terms of length and in terms of the amount of ground that it covers. It’s the penultimate review in a series of pieces based on my personal shortlist for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award.

My piece on Colson Whitehead’s universally-celebrated Underground Railroad considers some of the genre tropes deployed in the novel and concludes that what makes Underground Railroad a work of science fiction is the way that it uses fictional settings to engineer a particular set of emotional responses to the politics of the real world:


The Underground Railroad reminded me quite a bit of The Female Man as the different states recall Russ’s different worlds and their juxtaposition is clearly intended to lead us to a particular set of political insights. The Underground Railroad is not just a work of science fiction but a work of science fiction that is part of a tradition of political writing that stretches beyond the birth of genre all the way back to antiquity.  Unfortunately, while I think that The Underground Railroad shares a lot of common ground with works of Feminist SF like The Female Man, I also think that the book suffers from a lack of moral clarity that would perhaps not be present in a more conventional piece of genre writing.


As I go on to explain in my review, I suspect the conclusion’s lack of moral clarity reflects a degree of political indecision on the part of the author. The book’s first ending finds its protagonist living in an — ultimately unsustainable — bourgeois idyll but while Whitehead acknowledges that black people can’t just pretend that racism doesn’t exist, he’s really not clear on what it is that they should do instead…

This raises another question about the state of American literary culture: Would Underground Railroad have won a Pullitzer prize if it had ended with a demand for Reparations? Would Whitehead have been interviewed by Oprah had his book ended with cathartic depictions of white genocide? I was frustrated by Whitehead’s political indecision but I can understand why he — or any other BAME author — might choose to downplay the radicalism of their politics.

Paul Kincaid’s piece about Underground Railroad touches on many of the same points as mine but he seems a lot happier with the ambivalence of the ending:

There is no resolution to the story, because there can be no resolution. The story of being black in America has not reached any sort of an ending, so we leave Cora journeying once more, heading who knows where, hoping to find who knows what. There is no promise in this ending; but she has survived, so far, and that is something.

Victoria Hoyle’s piece is similarly upbeat about the ending and stresses the powerful symbolism contained in the idea of the underground railroad having been built by escaped slaves. While I took this passing reference to the construction of the railroad to be symptomatic of the deeply hypocritical white activists, Victoria chooses to see it as a metaphorical representation of collective action and how generations of political activists have worked themselves to death in order to facilitate the emancipation of their fellows:

It’s a manifestation of the countless unnamed people who fought for the freedom of slaves and the civil rights of African Americans, and a recognition of the real change wrought – to the body of the earth itself – by kindness, compassion and individual actions in the name of justice.  Whitehead’s answer to the question of change places emphasis on the potential for positive outcomes through the work of many hands.

Nick Hubble’s piece — on the other hand — is even darker than mine in that he sees Cora’s journey not so much as an incomplete march towards freedom as a spiralling drift through a series of oppressive delusions:

The Underground Railroad is a novel of our times but it also shows that our times are just the latest ‘state’ in which a deeper, darker scheme has reformulated itself. For an America that more clearly manifests its delusional status by the day, Whitehead offers the hope of escape for those prepared to become flaws in the system and to direct their practical resistance to the collective task of tunnelling to a different future.


One thing I have enjoyed about the Shadow Clarke’s coverage of Underground Railroad is that, despite having been written in almost complete isolation, all of our reviews seem to be in agreement. In fact, the only real point of difference between the reviews lies in our respective attitudes towards political change: Victoria is hopeful, Nick is pessimistic, Paul is pragmatic, and I am annoyed that it doesn’t end with violent insurrection. Another really cool thing about the coverage is that we all agree that Underground Railroad is a science fiction novel, which got me thinking about the process of ‘claiming’ genre novels published in the mainstream:


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[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — M. Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors (2016)

April 21, 2017

Another week, another lengthy piece about a relatively obscure science-fiction novel taken from my list of potential Clarke Award nominees.

This time, I have written about M. Suddain’s second novel Hunters & Collectors, a book that I initially loved, then got annoyed with, and finally came to appreciate not only for the sheer quality of its sentence-by-sentence writing but also for the myriad clever ways in which it uses structure, pagination, and the trappings of literary sophistication to produce very specific effects and explore some interesting themes:


Hunters & Collectors is a book about celebrity and the way that online celebrity interacts with social class. Tomahawk presents himself as this hedonistic and transgressive figure but as his destruction suggests, his ability to transgress the rules of polite society is constrained by a particular social contract: As a critic, he can express himself as honestly as he wants as long as that self-expression does not extend beyond the realms of consumer advice to a critique of existing power structures and social systems. Be as rude as you like about restaurant owners, but don’t you dare talk about the government. The social contract also has an – unwritten but understood – rule that your celebrity and popularity are entirely dependent upon your ability to face the right direction at all times. Be as rude as you like about the out-group, but don’t you dare talk about people we aspire to be lest we turn against you. There is also an understanding that making any statement in public (even anonymously) positions you in a world where everyone spends their time tearing each other to pieces. Face the wrong direction and your support will evaporate and once your support evaporates, you can be utterly destroyed even if you have not done or said anything wrong. This is a dog-eat-dog world but only for those without any real power.


The recent US elections have done quite a bit to focus our attentions on the way that a culture’s Overton window can be influenced not only by the material conditions affecting the lives of political commentators but also by the social dynamics that govern the social circles in which those political commentators move. Any number of excellent pieces have and will continue to be written about this but I found this older piece by Henry Farrell to be a really good starting point.

This being said, I think that the focus on well-connected voices who had been hoping to benefit from varying degrees of presidential ‘access’ has served to obscure the realities of life on the lowest levels of content provision. Hunters & Collectors presents the online world as a place that can make you rich and famous or poor and hated almost at the flick of a switch and I think the rise and fall of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Devin Faraci show quite how cut-throat and precarious this cultural sphere has become. The (thoroughly excellent) podcast Chapo Trap House has tens of thousands of subscribers and moves almost seamlessly between the celebration and evisceration of different political commentators. Chapo may have turned these cultural reactions into a cultural phenomenon but my experience of social media is that everyone spends their days spreading the pieces they like and tearing apart the pieces they hate. If you don’t believe me, ask Owen Jones a man perpetually misunderstood, regardless of the interpretation one happens to place upon his writings…







[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016)

April 12, 2017

Ever so slightly behind schedule (the real shortlist is announced on the 14th — CRUMBS!) comes the fourth review from my selected shortlist of potential nominees. The review may have been late but I’m glad I wrote it as I genuinely think that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was the best work of science fiction published in 2016. I also think that it’s an incredibly important book that speaks directly to the political climate in which we currently find ourselves.

Set in a future in which the stars have been explored and the nation-state has atrophied, Central Station is about a place far more than it is about a group of people. Sure… there are people in the book — people who fall in love, experience things, and have adventures — but the book’s episodic structure and willingness to revisit the same characters over and over through different sets of eyes signals (to me at least) a desire to explore how spaces create subjectivities and how those subjectivities interact with people’s personal histories to create all new identities. In other words, Central Station is a book about multiculturalism published at a time when liberals and conservatives are falling over each other in their haste to throw those values under the bus:

The global turn towards economic nationalism means that we now desperately need works that will argue for the economic, cultural and spiritual benefits of multiculturalism and that is why Central Station may yet turn out to be the single most important and culturally-relevant work of science fiction to be published in decades. If ever you wanted a novel that spoke to the Now, if ever you wanted a novel that looked to the future, if ever you wanted a novel that understood what it means to be modern then seek out Central Station.

Re-reading my review, I am rather struck by the thematic similarities between this piece and Sarah Lyall’s widely circulated (and absurdly over-designed) piece for the New York Times entitled Will London Fall?

Lyall’s takes the view that multiculturalism and neoliberalism are inseparable in that the free movement of capital begets the free movement of people and the free movement of people creates spaces in which people from wildly different backgrounds are forced to co-exist. Lyall goes on to consider the future of London in light of a Brexit vote that must (apparently) be interpreted as a vote against the free movement of people and the multicultural spaces it creates.

My problem with Lyall’s piece is that while I agree that neoliberalism is very good at creating the kinds of conditions in which multiculturalism naturally emerges, I don’t think that multiculturalism requires neoliberalism and I certainly don’t think that Brexit is somehow going to turn London into the urban equivalent of Midsomer.

Multiculturalism is, at the most basic level, an ethos that allows people with different cultural heritages to co-exist. Some argue that Brexit will make Britain a more mono-cultural place but the British government are already in talks with places like India and the Philippines and that is without mentioning the fact that London has been a multicultural space since the time of the fucking Romans. Even if Theresa May reduces the country’s net immigration to zero, London will still have to cope with the fact that British people from different backgrounds are living, working, and dating together every single day. If London is going to fall, it will be killed by property developers and not by some attempt to impose economic nationalism on a multicultural city. Multiculturalism isn’t a political ideology that one can turn away from… it’s a product of the fact that your parents’ parents’ parents’ happened to come from different places, hooked up, and now people speak three different languages over Christmas dinner. To believe that multiculturalism can be overthrown or defeated by even a powerful political movement is to ignore how subjectivities and identities are even formed.

I mention Lyall’s piece because it annoyed me, but also because I think it touches on a number of themes and ideas that are present both in my piece and in Central Station so it might prove an interesting companion.


My fellow Sharkes have also reviewed the book but they seem to have responded to very different things (which is precisely why criticism is both an intensely personal art form in its own right and fucking awesome)…

Victoria Hoyle is surprised by how emotive and moving the book turned out to be:

I return to the love though, and how this book left me with a giddy feeling of possibility.  It ends on a note that suggests a powerful belief in hope, in joy even in death.  However the past marks us, however the future will change us, Tidhar imagines continuity amidst the wrenching disjuncture.  In the shadow of a space station ‘laundry [is] hanging as it had for hundreds of years’ (55), and from the far distant future of the Prologue we are still telling stories about it.  For me this is the kind of story that people were yearning for in Becky Chamber’s A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but with all the nuance and poetry that book lacked.

I absolutely agree with Victoria’s points here and I think the comparison to Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is really on point. Chambers’ wrote an ostensibly anti-racist novel by hacking up a load of racist stereotypes, using the pieces to assemble a group of alien races, and then talking at length about the importance of using the appropriate pronouns. I think while Chambers’ approach to racism comes from a ‘good place’ its methodologies and ideas about racism turned out to be at best simplistic and at worst reactionary. Central Station is also about a load of people from very different places living together in cramped science-fictional quarters but the book presents cohabitation not as a series of rules to be followed but as a process of understanding and solidarity growing from shared space, mutual interest, and the natural process of recognising the personhood of other people. Central Station is about the world we actually live in whereas A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is about the world you wished you lived in because you’re terrified that someone might call you a racist. It came as no surprise to me that while Central Station was overlooked by Hugo voters, the sequel to A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (which I have not read) made it onto the shortlist.


Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review latches onto the book’s depiction of its science-fictional present as a collision between past and future that creates something refreshingly mundane and real:

Central Station is not clinically futuristic; instead it is quotidian. And in being quotidian it offers the space for so many things that readers and critics of science fiction have argued for – ordinary women going about their daily business; a diverse cast of characters drawn together by likely circumstance rather than authorial anxiety; space travel being no more important than bus travel; people just about making ends meet, like most of us do; a future in which the ordinary and the extraordinary continue to meet and collapse into one other, much as they’ve always done, and a literature in which, while the past provides a foundation for the future, it does not insist on continuing to shape that future.

A lot of my writing over the past few years has been informed by a profound alienation from commercial genre fiction. These days, I can no more tolerate violent moral fantasies than I can identify with messiah-like individuals. The world is a complex place and change must come from below and I really struggle to read anything that conflicts with that fundamental worldview. Central Station is a bit more ‘science-fictiony’ than the books that I tend to enjoy and I think that my enjoyment comes from Tidhar’s commitment to the realness of place. I want to read stories about real people, in real places, having real experiences, and facing real problems. I read to inform my thinking about the world, not to escape it and what I really loved about Central Station is the fact that it felt real in a way that so little commercial genre writing manages to achieve.

REVIEW — Paterson (2016)

March 29, 2017

This week sees the home release of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, his first film since 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive (which I adored). Unlike most of Jarmusch’s recent films, Paterson comes without the sugar-frosting of genre tropes. No vampires, no spies, no cowboys, and no assassins.  Just a dude who writes poetry and drives a city bus.  My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

There are many paths into an evocative film like Paterson but the one that caught my attention was the relationship between the poet who exists in an oppressively repetitive world where he is just happy to be a normal guy and the wife who spends her days trying to perform the identity of an artist only to have her true calling almost creep up on her. It would have been easy for Jarmusch to unpack this tension in moral terms and so take a swipe at the culture of public performance created by social media but the view he adopts is actually far more nuanced in that it supports the poet who keeps beauty locked up inside his own head as well as the people who feel the need to ‘fake it till they make it’ creatively.

Like many of Jarmusch’s more memorable films, Paterson is episodic, urban and filled with a wry melancholy over the isolation and strangeness of normal lives but Paterson uses those themes to explore the creative process as it plays out in the lives of normal people.


Paterson is a beautifully conceived, beautifully shot, and beautifully acted film that serves as a reminder of how sensitive and humane Jarmusch can be when he isn’t forcing the round peg of his vision into the square holes of popular culture. It is also an interesting piece of cinematic business as while the age of austerity is forever turning the screws and forcing works of art further and further outside of the cultural mainstream, Jim Jarmusch managed to convince to help distribute a $5 Million film about a bus driver who writes poetry.



[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW – Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality (2016)

March 27, 2017

Better late than never, here is a link to another review from my selected short-list of potential nominees for this year’s Clarke Award. This time, I am writing about Joanna Kavenna’s seventh novel A Field Guide to Reality.

Set in an alternate Oxford that looks a lot more like contemporary Glastonbury than the over-developed SPAD factory that exists in our world, A Field Guide to Reality is all about one woman’s attempts to track down a work of non-fiction that may or may not have been left to her by a recently deceased philosopher. Halfway between a guided tour and an initiatic journey, the book drags its protagonist from one truth-seeker to another whilst throwing serious shade at the very concept of philosophical truth. As part of the Shadow Clarke project, the book has also been reviewed by Nina Allan who seems to have been just as ambivalent about the book as I was:


There’s an alternate-universe scenario in which A Field Guide to Reality, in its extrapolation of hard science into uncanny weirdness and bifurcating time-streams, into an Oxford populated by ghosts as well as scholars, is exactly the kind of book the Clarke should and would be celebrating if it only had more imagination about itself, and was less hidebound by tradition and by the genre community’s perception not only of what science fiction is, but what it should be.


I must admit that this is precisely the kind of book I was hoping to read when I selected A Field Guide to Reality as part of my short-list. I’d even go so far as to say that this is the kind of science fiction I want to be reading in general as I find that my heart yearns for a form of SF that is like Hard SF but with 30 years of artistic drift separating it from the likes of Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter.

The problem is that while A Field Guide to Reality presents itself as a weird and wonderful look at the nature of reality, I think that Kavenna is far too cynical and defeatist to take that kind of task even remotely seriously. As a result, rather than writing about the nature of reality, Kavenna has chosen to write a book about the lack of creativity and relevance in contemporary academic thought:


On a structural level, A Field Guide to Reality is an exquisitely clever piece of writing as Kavenna begins the book on a note of genuine anger at both the elitism of academic institutions and the absolute worthlessness that characterises much of their intellectual output. However, while these cynical notes do come together to form a thematic chord, the chord progression is only allowed to resolve itself at the very end of the novel. This means that while the protagonist is content to swallow every half-baked truth that comes her way, the reader confronts these ideas with the cynicism they deserve. Eliade may believe that she is immersing herself in oceans of beautiful complexity but the reader can quite clearly see her flapping away on the bank vomiting up copious litres of pond. The tension between the cynicism of the novel and the optimism of the book’s protagonist may or may not recall Voltaire’s Candide but it certainly makes for a tense and uncomfortable reading experience.


As someone who has spent enough time in academia to lose all respect for it as an institution, I find it very hard to disagree with any of the feelings explored in A Field Guide to Reality. I also find it very easy to admire not only the technical brilliance of the writing but also the sheer beauty of the book as a physical object in that it comes as a lovely hardback with thick, crinkly-edged pages that contain all sorts of wonderful illustrations and typographical tricks. A Field Guide to Reality is cleverly conceived, brilliantly executed, and a wonderful object to own and yet it is quite difficult to get excited about yet another book that satirises academia.

Future Interrupted – The Animal-Narcotic Complex

March 22, 2017

Interzone #269 is now a thing in the world. Anyone with an interest in getting hold of it can do so via the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

This month’s issue is built around Steve Rasnic Tem and so we have not only a new story but also an editorial, a review, and an interview with the man himself. Here’s the complete list of stories:

  • “The Common Sea” by Steve Rasnic Tem.
  • “The Influence Machine” by Sean McCullen
  • “A Death in the Wayward Drift” by Tim Akers
  • “Still Life with Falling Man” by Richard E. Gropp
  • “A Strange Kind of Beauty” by Christien Gholson


This issue’s non-fiction features a lovely column by Nina Allan about the places she has lived, and the experience of leaving England and going to live in Scotland.

Despite my increasingly pig-headed refusal to go and see Geek films at the cinema, Nick Lowe‘s column continues to be one of the greatest things in the universe. This month’s column opens with a lovely little meditation on the way that genre film tends to approach family:


Fantasy cinema in particular tends to be aimed at actual or effective adolescents at a moment of identity formation and psychic development where feelings towards parents are most conflicted; and audiences can be returned to the world of generally not being orphaned with a brief flush of cathartic guilt at their failure to appreciate the sacred gift of family.


As Lowe goes on to say, it’s hard not to start reading between the lines when every film you encounter seems to be about parental death and abandonment but what is it that we should see in the ever-deepening shadows between repeatedly carved-out lines?

As I said earlier this year in a response to another of Lowe’s excellent columns, I don’t think there’s anything accidental about Hollywood’s obsession with Bad Dads or its constant projection of adolescent identities onto ostensibly adult characters. As Lowe points out, adolescence is the point at which our identities are most unstable and entire industries and technological platforms exist purely to help us define and broadcast our identities.

Infantilisation isn’t just about encouraging adults to consume culture aimed at kids, it’s about creating a cultural environment where adults see themselves as having the same inner lives as children. This environment is created having every piece of popular culture drive home the idea that adults are psychologically indistinguishable from children. The reason characters like Tony Stark and Captain Kirk are obsessed with their fathers is not just so that teenagers can relate to them, it’s also suggesting that it is perfectly normal for grown adults to be consumed by the need for parental approval.

Corporations encourage us to view ourselves as children because children have insecure identities and so are more likely to latch onto material objects as a way of asserting themselves. In truth, being an adult means having an identity that is strong enough to withstand not only parental disapproval but also the disapproval and opposition from people with greater amounts of social status. Contrary to what Disney and their ilk  would like you to believe, you are more than a child.

This month’s reviews include me on Adam Roberts’ novella “Betthany”, Maureen Kincaid Speller on the Welcome to Nightvale book, Elaine Gallagher on the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love, Duncan Lunnan on the novels of Tom Toner, Jack Deighton on Czeslaw Milosc’s The Mountains of Parnassus, John Howard on Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia, Stephen Theaker on Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire,and Lawrence Osborn on Stross’s Empire Games.

My column this month is entitled #Resistance? and it looks at the inevitable move to sell genre fiction off the back of its supposed opposition either to Trump in particular or the general collapse of liberalism into fascism. You’ll have to wait 6 months to read that column but in the meantime, here is a piece I wrote about Emma Geen’s The Many Selves of Katherine North (which I’ll be writing about again as part of the Shadow Clarke project):


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Thought Projectors 7

March 13, 2017

 In the last set of Thought Projectors, I commented that I felt that my writing was already in the process of changing. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant but it seems to have played out as a slight re-organisation of the things I want to think about, write about, and do.

My usual supplier of review copies having fallen ominously quiet, I am not feeling to urge to write about film quite as much. I still watch and enjoy the occasional film but I must admit that Hollywood’s creative implosion and the long, slow, ossification of the art house film scene mean that writing about film feels considerably less urgent than writing about other things. At least for the moment.

The Shadow Clarke Award is taking up considerably more head-space than I thought it would. I expected my engagement with the project to be a bit like producing an almost weekly IZ column but I’ve found that even when I’m not reading or writing, I’m thinking about science fiction and discussing it behind the scenes with my fellow shadow jurors. I had hoped that the project would revitalise the role of the critic in genre spaces and I’m certainly finding that it’s having that effect on me. Hence my not only writing a bit more about science fiction but also being a bit more combative in defence of both my ideas and my right to take up space on the internet. Anyway, for those who might have missed it, here is Nina Allan discussing round two of the Shadow Clarke Award and here is the list of books that I will be discussing over the next few weeks.


I am also continuing to enjoy my attempts at photography, if only because it turns my usual decision-making processes on their heads. I remember that in graduate school I would approach fresh topics in a very intuitive fashion, meaning that I would read a little bit of everything and then follow my gut as far as what I felt was the right position. Fifteen-or-so years later and I feel as though my thinking has become a lot more top-down in the sense that I will often worry more about internal consistency than satisfying my gut. Photography inverts this process as while I can and have read books about photographic theory and technique, I find myself unable to approach the creative process in a top-down fashion. The only way I can make photos is by working things through and discovering what feels right and what feels wrong.

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