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Posts tagged ‘Science Fiction’

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.

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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.

 

Locus Recommended Reading List

LocusJust a quick post to say how delighted I am to discover Clade is one of the titles selected for Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for 2015. You can check out the full list over at Locus, but needless to say I’m completely thrilled to be on a list that features books by Ann Leckie, Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Roberts and Dave Hutchinson, and by the incredibly generous comments about the book in the issue itself. My sincere thanks to all concerned.

And just a reminder that if you’re in Australia Clade is available from any good bookstore, your favourite online retailer or as a ebook, and worldwide through Book Depository.

 

 

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.

 

Best Books 2015

Brief History of Seven KillingsI’m aware this is a little late in the piece, but I thought I might take a few minutes to pull together a section of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the past twelve months.

These sorts of lists always make me uncomfortably aware not just of how little I’ve read over the past twelve months, but how incoherent that reading feels, a feeling that, for various reasons, is even more pronounced this year than usual.
Yet despite all that I read a number of books this year that I admired enormously. And while I’m mostly going to try and avoid ranking books, one book that would sit near the top of any list I might make is Marlon James’ astonishing, virtuosic A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book that is as impressive technically as it is as a portrait of the complex ways violence and reverberates through both individual lives and history.

Similarly impressive was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a series I’m still working my way through, but which is as remarkable as everybody says, astonishing not just for their ferocious moral intelligence and psychological penetration, but for their almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict.

Buried GiantIt seems to have slipped off many people’s radar already, but I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s deeply strange excursion into post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant, Kevin Barry’s similarly strange and stylistically pyrotechnic portrait of John Lennon lost in rural Ireland in 1978, Beatlebone, and Anne Enright’s marvellous The Green Road (the second chapter of which is worth the price of admission alone). Likewise I very much enjoyed the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My StruggleDancing in the Dark, not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s the book where the series’ fictional and autobiographical elements begin to enfold each other in fascinating ways, and in so doing begin to bring the complexity of Knausgaard’s larger design into focus. And although I’ve come to it late, John Williams’ Stoner is exactly as brilliant as everybody says it is.

I also very much admired Max Porter’s wonderfully odd and richly poetic exploration of grief, Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Tom McCarthy’s archly brilliant Satin Island and Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-Shortlisted The Year of the Runaways. And while it was perhaps slightly less brilliant than Life After Life, I loved Kate Atkinson’s wonderfully inventive exploration of historical contingency and the immensities a simple life can contain, A God in Ruins. And while I’m not sure whether it quite came off overall, I’m not sure I read a book over the past twelve months that was smarter, funnier or stylistically exciting at a line by line level than Nell Zink’s Mislaid.

Thing ItselfOver on the genre side I adored Dave Hutchinson’s smart, politically savvy near-future political thriller, Europe at Midnight, Kelly Link’s brilliant Get In Trouble and Paul McAuley’s wonderfully accomplished Something Coming Through, and very much enjoyed China Miéville’s dazzling Three Moments From An Explosion, Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde and Naomi Novik’s magical Uprooted. I also loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, a book that brought her fabulous Ancillary series to a wonderfully satisfying, emotionally resonant and fascinatingly subversive conclusion, and although I’m not quite sure whether it’s technically a 2015 or a 2016 book, Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is a triumph: a deeply strange, extremely funny and metaphysically thrilling riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics (trust me – it’s great). And finally, while it’s a bit over a year old, I adored Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (don’t be put off by the title: it’s wonderful).

Six BedroomsI read fewer Australian books than I should have, but of those I did I very much admired Mireille Juchau’s portrait of an ecologically fraying landscape, The World Without Us, and Tegan Bennett Daylight’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely painful Six Bedrooms, Charlotte Wood’s ferocious The Natural Way of Things and (although it’s a couple of years old), Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife.

I also read less non-fiction than I should have, and a lot of what I did read was things I’ve read before (Tim Dee’s wonderfully expansive Four Fields, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure), but I found time to knock over Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial Landmarks, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Hal Whitehead’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins and I loved Thomas Farber’s wise, witty and delightfully sideways Here and Gone. And while neither are 2015 books I also very much enjoyed Helen MacDonald’s 2006 contribution to Reaktion’s Animal series, Falcon, which is a rather drier affair than H is for Hawk, but fascinating nonetheless (I also recommend her closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year) and Rebecca Solnit’s marvellously spiralling The Faraway Nearby.

Unfaithful MusicOn the more technical side I very much enjoyed Mckenzie Wark’s notes toward a theory for the Anthropocene, Molecular Red (his unpacking of the politics and architectonics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a must-read for anybody interested in Robinson). And while it needed a much firmer editorial hand (and, I suspect, to be broken up into two different books), Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is as funny, savage and fascinating about songwriting as you’d expect, and while too long and oddly unreflective in some regards, often surprisingly moving, especially when it comes to Costello’s relationship with his father.

On the graphic side of things I hugely enjoyed Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, and I continued to love every panel of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel, Charles Soule and Javier Polio’s She-Hulk, Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s wicked and wise Loki: Agent of Asgard, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s joyous Daredevil and the endlessly delayed conclusion to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Ms Marvel

 

As I said in The Weekend Australian a couple of weeks ago though, the two books I loved most this year are a pair of novels that at first blush seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. The first, Sarah Hall’s exultant, lyrical The Wolf Border, focuses on a plan to reintroduce wolves to the north of England, the second, Kim Stanley Robinson’s dazzlingly expansive Aurora, follows the struggles of a group of colonists sent to Tau Ceti half a millennium from now, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent both are books deeply engaged with a series of questions about the ethical and imaginative dimensions of a world whose systems have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered by human activity, yet which simultaneously try to look beyond the reality of the present day in order to reclaim the imaginative possibilities of the future,  quality that, as 2015 draws to a close, seems not just important but necessary.

 

 

 

Write Around The Murray

Detail from Kathy Holowko's 'Batmania', featured at Write Around the Murray.

Detail from Kathy Holowko’s ‘Batmania’, featured at Write Around the Murray.

Just a quick note to say that if you’re in the Riverina I’ll be appearing at Write Around The Murray in Albury on the weekend of 12-13 September. The full program was announced a couple of weeks ago, and features a bunch of fantastic people, but if you’d like to catch me I’ll be discussing ‘When Sci-Fi becomes Cli-Fi’ with Jane Rawson, Cat Sparks and Tim Flannery at 1:00pm on Saturday 12 September, and at 3:00pm on Sunday 13 September I’ll be in conversation with Jason Steger as part of Write Around the Murray’s Big Book Club. Both events are at LibraryMuseum, Corner of Kiewa and Swift Streets, Albury, and you can RSVP online.

And just a reminder that I’ll be appearing at Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend and Brisbane Writers Festival the weekend after.

The Book of Strange New Things

Book of Strange New ThingsAt 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.