My new novel, Clade, hits bookshop shelves today. I’m incredibly excited it’s finally out: Penguin have done an amazing job and it looks gorgeous, but more importantly it’s a book I’m very proud of, and which means a great deal to me.
If you’d like to know a little more about it you can check out the publisher’s description, or read the first chapter, and if you’re curious about the title I’ve written a little piece about it you might find interesting.
I’ll be posting more information on events and things as they’re announced, but if you’re in Sydney there’s a launch at Better Read Than Dead at 6:00pm on Thursday 5 February, and one of the Sydney Story Factory’s Author Talks at 6:00pm on Wednesday 18 February. I’ll also be at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March.
But in the meantime, yay! And I hope you like it.
I’m very excited to say I’ll be a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March. The full list of guests, which includes the brilliant John Lanchester, Michel Faber, Joan London, Jenny Offil, John Darnielle, Ceridwen Dovey, Jane Gleeson-White and Willy Vlautin is available on the Writers’ Week website, where you can also check out events day by day or download a pdf of the full program, but you can catch me in conversation with Delia Falconer at 1:15pm on Sunday 1 March and talking about love and apocalypse with Michel Faber and Canadian poet Ken Babstock at 5:00pm on Monday 2 March. I’ll also be interviewing Mountain Goats frontman and novelist John Darnielle about his terrific new novel, Wolf in White Van, at 5:00pm on Saturday 28 February (an event I’m really excited about).
If you’re going to be in Adelaide please come along; in the meantime here’s Writers’ Week Director Laura Kroetsch talking about Clade a couple of months ago.
Three things that have been on high rotation in my life lately. First up Mary Timony (formerly of Helium and Wild Flag)’s new band Ex Hex’s terrific debut, Rips, the second Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas’ similarly brilliant debut, Secret Evil. And finally The Felice Brothers’ light as air and completely delightful new album, Favourite Waitress. All fantastic, all very worth a few minutes of your valuable time.
If you like what you read you can preorder the print version through Booktopia, Bookworld, Gleebooks, Readings, Better Read Than Dead, Pages and Pages, Abbey’s or your favourite online or bricks and mortar bookseller, or purchase the ebook from the Australian iBookstore, the Kobo store, Amazon.com and Amazon.com.au.
I’d hoped to get this up last Friday, but I ended up holding off because The Weekend Australian’s Best Books feature didn’t run until Saturday and I didn’t want to preempt my contribution to it. If you’ve got a few minutes I strongly suggest you take the time to check that list out, since it’s crammed with great stuff. You might also want to check out the lists in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the excellent Books of the Year feature in Australian Book Review (which I also contributed
to but isn’t online and is available for the price of a couple of cups of coffee).
As I said in the Oz and ABR, two of the books that stood out for me this year were Ceridwen Dovey’s wonderful suite of short stories, Only The Animals and Joan London’s luminous new novel, The Golden Age. I suspect both sound like slightly odd propositions at first blush – the Dovey is a series of stories about animals whose lives cross over with literary figures such as Tolstoy and Kerouac and Lawson, and the London is about two teenagers in a polio hospital in the 1950s – but they’re both fantastic books, and I’d be very surprised if the London wasn’t all over award shortlists here and overseas in 2015.
Staying with Australian books for a moment, there were three others I enjoyed enormously. The first is Chris Flynn’s The Glass Kingdom. I loved Flynn’s debut, Tiger in Eden, but the often very funny The Glass Kingdom shows Flynn stretching himself imaginatively and technically as he interrogates the various ways men perform masculinity. I was also very impressed by Fiona McFarlane’s tautly written debut, The Night Guest, and the fabulous P.M. Newton’s gritty and brutally unsentimental take on Sydney and crime, Beams Falling.
I also loved two books I’ve already written about but hope to write something longer about soon, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I know I’m not alone in being deeply impressed by the Faber, which is both very strange and deeply affecting, but I was also very moved by the Mitchell, which seemed to be deeply and productively engaged with a series of questions about time and loss.
Moving further afield I also completely adored Ali Smith’s smart, sexy and very moving How to be both, Jenny Offil’s wonderfully fragmented and very witty Dept. of Speculation, and Will Eaves’ marvellous The Absent Therapist, and while half the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark had already been published in Faber’s Collected Stories a few years ago, even four new stories by Moore are something to celebrate. Something similar is true of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, almost all of which I’d read elsewhere (and sometimes as non-fiction, which gives the book an even more unsettling frisson) but gathered together the pieces form a powerful and troubling whole. And Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is exactly as smart, funny and wicked as you’d expect, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Whether Richard Ford’s new Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a novel or four short stories is an interesting question, but either way it sees Ford back on top form as he depicts the now retired Bascombe not quite adrift in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Next to Ford Colm Toíbín’s writing can seem deliberately unshowy, but his new one, Nora Webster’s portrait of a woman rebuilding her life after the death of her husband offers a reminder of just how good he is. And while it didn’t make the Booker shortlist Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo sees Powers interweaving classical music and biology and terrorism in typically brilliant fashion (just quietly, if I could write a novel like Orfeo I’d die happy).
As I mentioned the other day you can catch me, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe chatting about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books on the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, but as I say there, I was enormously impressed by William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, which is both brilliantly written and grounded in a fully lived social reality in a way his last couple of books haven’t been, and Adam Roberts’ darkly witty, deeply literate and very unsettling riff on talking animals, Bête. I also adored the second part of Sean Williams’ Twinmaker trilogy, Crashland (which has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I’ve read in ages), Simon Ings’ creepily visceral exploration of virtuality, Wolves, and although I think it’s an almost wilfully unlikable book, I was deeply impressed by Peter Watts’ chilly follow-up to the terrifying Blindsight, Echopraxia. And while I didn’t think Ann Leckie’s sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword was as successful at a narrative level as its predecessor it was no less thoughtful and uncompromising in its depiction of the nature of power.
Of the debut science fiction novels I read this year the one I loved the most was Monica Byrne’s jagged and sensual The Girl in the Road. And while I’m not sure whether it’s really a genre novel at all, I hugely admired Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle’s awkward and deeply distressing study of trauma and the possibilities of the imagination, Wolf in White Van.
And finally, turning to fantasy, two novels stood head and shoulders above everything else I read. The first was Garth Nix’s wonderful new Old Kingdom novel, Clariel, a book that comes at the world of the Old Kingdom from a new angle, and which doesn’t just provide a reminder of just how wonderful that world is, but of how rich and magical and funny Nix is when he’s working at full throttle. And the second was the emotionally expansive and deeply satisfying conclusion Lev Grossman’s fabulous Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.
On the non-fiction front I loved Iain McCalman’s passionate and thrilling history of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef, and slightly closer to home, Ian Hoskins’ wonderful history of the New South Wales coastline, Coast. I also very much enjoyed James Nestor’s descent into the world of freediving and fringe science, Deep (a book I want to write something more about soon) and . But the two non-fiction books I loved the most this year were Helen MacDonald’s sometimes strained, sometimes eerily beautiful H is for Hawk (and interestingly the third book engaged by T.H. White’s legacy I’ve read in the last couple of years) and Sophie Cunningham’s tense, terrifying and frighteningly prescient study of Cyclone Tracy and its aftermath, Warning.
Of the graphic things I read I loved a number of the quirkier titles Marvel has been producing, in particular Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s brutal and brooding Moon Knight, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s joyous Ms Marvel and Charles Soule’s now-sadly cancelled She-Hulk, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Emily Carroll’s fabulously creepy collection of shorts, Through the Woods, a book that brilliantly marries a finely tuned affection for the pulp comics of the 1950s, an awareness of the cruelty of fairy tales and a wonderfully acute grasp of the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s great stuff.
Of course as always there are a number of things I haven’t got to yet but am looking forward to very much, in particular Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Boyhood Island, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a number of which I hope to get read over the break.
On the subject of which I hope the holiday season brings good things to all of you, and the year ahead is full of good things. Peace and goodwill to you all.
At first blush, science fiction and religion might seem curious bedfellows, the one priding itself on its hard-headedness and rationality, the other giving primacy to faith and the acceptance of mystery.
But dig a little deeper and the differences are less obvious, and not just because of the tradition of books such as James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow that explore questions about religion, but because Christianity’s eschatological underpinning is given literal form in many of science fiction’s most famous images of transcendence. After all, what are the final moments of Kubrick’s 2001, or the uploaded consciousnesses and singularities of the cyberpunks and their inheritors but updated versions of the Rapture?
Yet there’s little doubt there have been few science fiction novels as explicitly concerned with the meaning of faith as Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, a book that features a missionary despatched to an alien world to preach the Gospel to the natives while what looks suspiciously like the end of days consumes our own.
For the missionary, the aptly named Peter Leigh, the position is an extraordinary opportunity, even if it means being separated from his wife, Bea. Although surprisingly little is understood about the planet – Oasis – or its inhabitants, the aliens have specifically requested a missionary be sent, in order that they might learn more about the teachings of the Bible – or as they know it, The Book of Strange New Things – and more particularly its promises of eternal life.
Yet the task quickly proves more difficult than Peter anticipated. For although many of the Oasans are receptive to what he has to say, he finds himself overwhelmed not just by the strangeness of the planet, its oppressive humidity, altered colours and 72 hour days and nights, but by the problems of communicating his message in a way that treats the Oasans as equals.
The situation is not helped by the fact every other human on the planet is an employee of the company in charge of the colonisation, a faceless transnational called USIC (at one point Peter admits he doesn’t know what the letters stand for and is told it doesn’t really matter, “all the meaningful names have been taken”), and seem to have been selected precisely because they have no desire for meaningful contact with the people around them.
But the real problem is back on Earth, where a string of disasters and economic crises lead a newly pregnant Bea to begin to question first Peter, then their relationship, and finally her faith.
These sections – and indeed Faber’s incredibly tender depiction of Peter and Bea’s relationship more generally – are deeply affecting in their own right. But they’re made even more affecting by the fact the novel was written in the shadow of Faber’s wife Eva Youren’s struggle with cancer (Youren died earlier this year, and Faber has said in interviews The Book of Strange New Things will be his last novel). Indeed in one sense The Book of Strange New Things is perhaps best understood as a study of that most undramatic of things, a happy marriage.
At another level though the novel is engaged with a series of questions about religion and its fantasies of salvation and ending. These fantasies are embodied in the book itself, which in a sort of eschatological grace note takes the title of each of its chapters from the last line of that chapter, reinforcing the suggestion that all actions are, in the end, driving toward a particular conclusion. But this structural device is subverted by the resolutely homely nature of Peter and Bea’s faith, and their determination to do good in this life, not merely as a path to rewards in the next, but because by helping others we make both ourselves and the world a better place.
Simultaneously though there’s more than a whiff of Conrad about Peter’s journey and the colonial ambitions of USIC (despite a lovely bit of misdirection in the afterword it’s difficult to believe Peter’s predecessor, who disappeared after going native, is called Kurtzenberg by accident). Yet despite the allusions to Heart of Darkness (and indeed Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth) the novel’s method is never to derange or unsettle in any direct way. Indeed even the Oasans themselves, whose faces resemble “two foetuses curled up” never seem particularly alien or Other in any meaningful way.
It’s tempting to regard this as a failing, of a piece with the book’s oddly cursory attention to the mechanics of its science fictional bells and whistles. How one wants to ask, was Oasis discovered? Why does there only seem to be one group of Oasans? Aren’t there other communities, other cultures elsewhere on the planet? Why does Earth’s economy and environment collapse so suddenly and completely?
Yet I suspect asking these sorts of questions is to miss the point. Because despite its title The Book of Strange New Things isn’t interested in communicating or capturing strangeness at all, quite the reverse. Instead it seeks to demonstrate how inimical the modern world is to the miraculous, how inured it is against true beauty.
This interest in the deadening effects of contemporary culture is not new in Faber’s writing – indeed it’s front and centre in both his first novel, Under The Skin (to which The Book of Strange New Things seems to nod in its opening chapter’s depiction of Peter and Bea’s journey toward the airport along a series of anonymous motorways and layovers), and his third, The Fire Gospel, which was published as part of Canongate’s Myth Series in 2008. But in The Book of Strange New Things it is woven into the fabric of the book, captured not just in the careful affectlessness of the prose but in the USIC employees’ lack of desire to engage not just with questions of faith, but with questions of any kind. Against this backdrop Peter’s faith, like the simple happiness he shares with Bea, seems quixotic at best, an act of folly. Yet it is the triumph of this deeply strange yet strangely affecting novel that it also seems a kind of grace.
This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 13 December 2014.