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Born to Run

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately, and thinking about his body of work and my relationship with it. As you’d expect with an artist whose career spans more than 40 years there are highs and lows, but unusually for somebody who works in rock and roll and pop, there’s also a surprising degree of consistency, and there are albums he’s recorded in the past couple of decades (I’m thinking of Magic and The Rising in particular) which I listen to as often and enjoy just as much as the albums from the 1970s and 1980s.

But the album I love best and return to most often is Born to Run. I’ve been listening to it for 35 years and I still get chills every time. I love the scale of it, the Spectorish Wall of Sound grandeur of its production and the sense it’s in conversation with so many of his influences in 1960s pop and soul (“Roy Orbison sang ‘For the Lonely’ …”), the extraordinary sax and the way it underlines how essential Clemons was, the beautiful piano on ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’, the deliberate yet unself-conscious sweep of the songs and the economy of the storytelling (‘Meeting Across The River’ or ‘Backstreets’, for instance). In his memoir Springsteen says “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”, but although that urgency and desire for liberation through movement is what gives the record its extraordinary power, part of what I’ve always loved about it is the fact that even in its dark moments there’s a joyfulness to it that’s largely stripped away on Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska. Interestingly I also often end up listening to it back to back with Patti Smith’s Horses, which I don’t think is coincidental, not just because both albums were released in 1975 (or because Springsteen wrote ‘Because the Night’ for Smith, apparently singing it down the phone in the middle of the night as he went), but because when you listen to them side by side you hear how much both are about the striving for a sort of transcendence and purity of feeling, both qualities that have become unfashionable in recent years. It’s an astonishing record, and one that only seems to get more remarkable with the passage of time.

Ghost Species

shell-219665_960_720It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting on the beach beside the steel gantries and fuel tanks of Botany Bay’s container terminal watching my kids build a sandcastle by the water’s edge, a structure that keeps collapsing because the waves keep hitting it. But what I can’t get out of my head is the section of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, I read this morning, in which an unnamed narrator offers an imaginary account of the first sudden sea level rise in the 2040s. It’s a possibility I’ve also imagined in Ghost Species, the adult novel I’m writing (although mine is done from a more personal, experiential perspective), but simultaneously it’s a scenario that no matter how difficult it is for us to comprehend is now pretty much assured even if we do get emissions under control (as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, “once feedbacks take over, the climate can change quickly, and it can change radically … It’s likely that the “floodgates” are already open, and that large sections of Greenland and Antarctica are fated to melt. It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen”). All of which means this beach, a lot of this city, most coastal habitats, mangroves and reefs and, I suspect, much of our world, are all already lost, swept away by the ocean, like the bathetically symbolic sandcastle my kids are trying to build against the backdrop of the engine of global trade. Is there a word for his prospective grief, this knowledge nothing here will remain? For all the species and ecosystems that still linger, although they are already lost? For the way I feel when I watch my kids, and know that however safe the world they inhabit seems the future holds dislocation and disaster, or for my own uncertainty about what I should be teaching them? In his book Orison for a Curlew the writer Horatio Clare talks about Greece’s economic ruin being a cenotaph for our society, I wonder whether this moment might be another.

Cover Reveal: The Silent Invasion

thesilentinvasion_fronthr

I’m incredibly excited to present the cover of my new novel, The Silent Invasion, which will be published by Pan Macmillan Australia in April. It’s the first part of a trilogy of young adult novels set a decade or so from now on an Earth transformed by the arrival of alien biology. I’m incredibly excited about them, and I’ve had huge fun writing them, not least because they’ve let me play around with a whole lot of crazy ideas about alien ecologies and replication and quantum hive minds, while also writing a really personal story about love and loyalty and survival. I’ll be posting more information about them closer to publication, but for now you can pre-order the first part from your favourite bookseller, and make a note in your diary that the second book will be available in November.

Dreaming in the Dark and a Best of Trifecta

Best ofs.jpgA little after the fact, but I’ve got a story in Dreaming in the Dark, the first book from PS Publishing’s new imprint, PS Australia. Edited by Jack Dann, the collection features stories by a roll call of brilliant writers, ranging from Garth Nix and Sean Williams to Angela Slatter, Lisa L. Hannett, Rjurik Davidson and many more (you can check out a full list of contributors and order a copy on PS’ website). Like all PS’ books it’s also a stunning-looking object, with a gorgeous cover designed by Greg Bridges, and if you hurry you can get an illustrated slipcased limited edition. It’s a fantastic book and I’m delighted to be in such fantastic company.

I’m very proud of the story that appears in the collection. Entitled ‘Martian Triptych’, it moves from the dying moments of Percival Lowell to billions of years in the future, and explores the way human time and geological time intersect in our imaginations and in reality. So I’m absolutely delighted Charlotte Wood has selected it for Best Australian Stories 2016, where it appears alongside stories by people such as Elizabeth Harrower, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Fiona McFarlane, Gregory Day and Georgia Blain. It’s a real honour to be included and I’m very grateful.

It’s also a real honour to be able to say my essay about the late David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which began life as a post on this site, has been included in Best Australian Essays 2016, edited by Geordie Williamson. It’s a piece I’m very proud of and one I’m thrilled is now going to find a new audience.

I’m also thrilled to say ‘Slippery Migrants’, a piece I wrote for The Monthly about the amazing lifecycle of the long-finned eel, has been included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016, which was edited by Jo Chandler. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of myself as a science writer – certainly when I look at people who write about science for a living like Chandler and Bianca Nogrady I’m keenly aware of the skill and knowledge they bring to bear on their work – so it’s wonderful to find myself in their company, and even more wonderful to be able to say the piece was shortlisted for the 2016 Bragg Prize for Science Writing.

And finally I’d like to thank both the editors who helped shape and refine the original pieces – ‘Slippery Migrants’ in particular benefited from careful and thoughtful editing by the team at The Monthly – and Black Inc Books and New South Publishing for their continued support of these Best of series, which play an incredibly important role in celebrating and supporting Australian writing and Australian writers.

 

Best Books 2016

Spiotta.jpgIt’s that time of year, so because what the world needs is yet another best of the year list (surely it’s time we all went meta and started producing lists of the best best of lists?) I thought I’d pull together a quick roundup of some of the books I loved this year (if I get the time I’ll also put together a few music picks).

If you’d like to get a head start you can check out the Best Books features in The Weekend Australian (Part One and Part Two) and Australian Book Review, both of which include some of my selections as well as those of many other smart, interesting people, or indeed the features in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which I’m not part of but are terrific. And you can also hear me in conversation with Jonathan Strahan, Gary Wolfe and Ian Mond about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year on The Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review episode.

As I say in The Weekend Australian, my favourite book of the year was Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, the follow-up to her fabulous Stone Arabia. I’m a huge fan of Spiotta, and like all her books Innocents and Others is just thrilling as a piece of literary art: beautifully written, strikingly intelligent about the questions of friendship and art at its core, wonderfully oblique in its approach to narrative. If you haven’t read it I recommend it very much (in fact I recommend all her books).

Barkskins.jpgI also hugely admired Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, a book that forces the reader to confront the scale of the destruction humans are visiting on the world around us, and which, in its final, wrenching sections, embodies more than a little of the incoherent grief so many of us feel. It’s also a book that makes a useful companion piece to three of the best non-fiction books I read this year, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and Horatio Clare’s slim but often profound search for a vanished bird, Orison for a Curlew.

I was also deeply impressed by Colson Whitehead’s speculative reworking of the history of slavery, The Underground Railroad, Frances Spufford’s gloriously poised and entirely delightful riff on the eighteenth century novel, Golden Hill (a book that deserved much more attention than it received), Ann Patchett’s characteristically smart and expansive Commonwealth, Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, and the fifth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Some Rain Must Fall (like many people I’m torn between being unable to wait for the sixth and regret that it will be the final volume).

Amsterdam.jpgI’m not sure it would be correct to say I loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but other than the Proulx I’m not sure any book affected me more this year: I found its portrait of grief and mental illness and their generational legacy deeply distressing and extremely powerful. Something similar is true of Han Kang’s intense and deeply disquieting The Vegetarian, while Elizabeth Strout’s hugely impressive My Name is Lucy Barton is distinguished by the pain that lurks in its silences. And although Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out approaches its subject with a real lightness of touch, its exploration of the ways in which assisted suicide affects those who must facilitate it is hugely intelligent and very moving.

Other novels I enjoyed very much include David Dyer’s wonderful Titanic novel, The Midnight Watch, Sarah Perry’s exuberant The Essex Serpent, Mike McCormack’s novel in a single sentence, Solar Bones, Ali Smith’s Autumn, J.M. Coetzee’s delightfully strange and darkly witty The Schooldays of Jesus and Kirsten Tranter’s beautifully pitched study of grief, Hold. And while I came to them late (and I don’t think the stories are necessarily best served by being presented in collected form) I was hugely impressed by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Dark Emu.jpgIn terms of non-fiction, my pick of the year is Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant study of pre-contact Aboriginal agriculture and technology, Dark Emu. There aren’t many books I think every Australian should read but Pascoe’s is definitely one of them. I also very much admired Amy Liptrot’s Wainwright Prize winner, The Outrun, Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Kate Summerscale’s brilliant The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. I also hugely enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s foray into memoir, Born to Run, and although I read it under sad conditions, Simon Critchley’s wonderful Bowie, a book that along with Hugo Wilcken’s study of Low is, for my money, the best of the small library of Bowie books I’ve read in the past couple of years (if you’re interested you can check out my essay about Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which is also in this year’s Best Australian Essays).

I’m biased, obviously, but of the science fiction and fantasy I read my favourite was the first instalment in my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new series for middle grade readers, Escape to the Moon Islands. Like all her books it’s warm and funny and wonderfully original and I can’t recommend it enough (it also has a talking parrot).

In second place was Garth Nix’s Goldenhand, which saw Nix return to the Old Kingdom with triumphant results, but it was a close-run thing with Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderfully expansive sort-of sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, Children of Earth and Sky, and I also very much enjoyed the conclusion to Paul McAuley’s Jackaroo duology, Into Everywhere, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station and Charlie Jane Anders’ exuberant Anthropocene fantasy/sci fi mash-up, All The Birds in the Sky. And while it isn’t strictly speculative, I also hugely admired Nike Sulway’s Dying in the First Person.

There’s not really any competition for comic of the year as far as I’m concerned: that crown goes to Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s stunning Vision, but I also loved Adrian Tomine’s short graphic stories, Killing and Dying.

Wolf and a Dog.jpegAnd finally, although my experience of it was tinged with great sadness, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog. Georgia’s death a fortnight ago from brain cancer leaves a huge hole in so many people’s lives, but it has also robbed us of one of the most important voices in contemporary Australian literature: Georgia’s writing, both fictional and non-fictional, was always distinguished by her preparedness to speak plainly and truthfully about her own experience, the lives of women and the demands and contradictions of family and love, and to my mind at least she was one of the bravest writers I have ever known. Worse yet, it came at a time when Georgia’s work seemed to have found a new freedom and expansiveness, qualities that are very much on display in Between a Wolf and a Dog, and which I am certain will be everywhere in the book she completed in her final months, The Museum of Words, which will be published next year. I wrote a short piece about Georgia and her work for the Fairfax press, but there have also been beautiful tributes to her from Charlotte WoodSophie Cunningham and Jane Gleeson-White, and a terrific piece about her and her mother, Anne Deveson (who died only three days after Georgia) by Anne Summers. As Sophie says, she was magnificent.

Clade cover reveal

Very excited. Out September in the UK and US with Titan Books.

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The world has changed: on writing in the Anthropocene

Here’s me in conversation with the wonderful Iain McCalman (if you haven’t read his marvellous The Reef: A Passionate History it’s brilliant).