The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again returns to the themes of 1997’s Signs of Life (which by coincidence I read for the first time a couple of months before this). Weathered by time, the new treatment is considerably less dramatic, the intricately eroded extrusions of a formerly vast sandstone tower, or a non-conformist friend who has long outgrown the need to spread discomfort. The results, I suspect, will only further strengthen Harrison’s reputation as a luminary of literature to be relished by future generations, as much as they may further refine his audience range today.

Much like Signs of Life, Harrison’s new novel features an aimless man drawn to work for a wild outlier, and details his on-off relationship with a somewhat feckless woman. China, evergreen boy racer and co-founder of a business business transporting medical waste, becomes Shaw, a man who drifts through life and crisis with equal confusion. Choe, the gnomic wildcard demagogue, becomes Tim, an entrepreneur who apparently makes money – not that money is ever seen, or really discussed – shipping esoteric theories around the country along with bottles of what is packaged as water. Isobel, and her literal desire to become a bird, becomes Victoria who has a severe case of ennui in pursuit of brief glimpses of the inexplicable. The characters have all grown past the need for melodrama in their lives, instead intent on exploring their own beliefs and psyches.

The plot, as much as it exists, isn’t really critical to an understanding of the book. Suffice to say the Other is given form and once you change you don’t come back. It’s rarely glimpsed in off-colour skin and diminutive figures, flashes of something almost – but not quite – odd enough to concern people. There’s is a recurring refrain of The Water Babies, those closest to change increasingly obsessed with the book.  Meanwhile Shaw visits his mother who is succumbing to dementia, and never questions what Tim tells him, and Victoria renovates a house and fails to integrate with a Welsh border town community.

Shaw, who frames the novel, exists with a lack of awareness of his internal world that makes him an absence, a symbolic collection of dialogues and actions that trouble us as much as his limited experience of the events of the novel trouble him. His fragmentary mother – both her mind and the endless half-siblings fracturing her role as his mother – collected through photos is a metaphor we relate to. Combined with Victoria’s incomplete house and unknown father, the mystery is available to us as a set on discrete elements which only crystallise if we impose alignment on them.

Meanwhile Victoria (who is much more likeable than Shaw, with her enthusiasm and drive to engage with people) inhabits, inherits and renovates her estranged mother’s house, all the while trying to find out who she really was. It’s her relationship with Pearl that gives us the closest interaction with the Events of these times, but even these are deliberately underplayed. Shallow ponds, inches deep, that have no impact on the grass they submerge are the portals, seemingly innocuous but resolutely one way. We can only deduce what they contain, never confirm.

Harrison’s work is increasingly punctuated with teleological questions that create an impressionistic world. It’s a metaphysical exercise in creation as a means, not an end. Narrative becomes a flood of ideas, images, sensations and intertextual references, collated around the blithely unaware protagonists. It’s because Harrison seems perfectly at ease with the mechanics of the illusion, arbitrary yet universal, and instead has focused on deconstructing the spell, that the unwary may find themselves disrupted by this book. There’s no easy leading through the maze to be had, instead an invitation to get lost, to walk the intertwined pathways and find your own way home.

It’s why he remains a cult figure, despite Light having been a sales hit (when a fraction of those people made it to the wondrous Empty Space, for instance). Most people don’t like it if you make the form a subject of interrogation, abandoning high stakes and the hero’s journey, placing the tension off-stage and spending as much time roaming the scenery as you do with the characters. It’s like Waiting for Godot (frequently just as funny as well) crossed with Koyaanisqatsi. It’s all a bit weird, but not in a way you can easily describe to those who haven’t seen.

The feeling is that of an errant film crew realising the next series of Grand Designs they’re making equates to precisely zero achievement from any perspective, and, so shorn of the compulsion to create narrative out of everything, they take their cameras up into the hills to find the experiential world (and possibly some psilocybin), whilst in the town below the vast and wild idea that a separate evolutionary line is emerging gleefully skips into the sunset with their truth.

Ultimately Shaw raids Tim’s secret closet – Tim doesn’t care, having passed on long before – and discards an anodyne body into the Thames. It’s a potentially frustrating moment for the unwary, where the many questions implied in the book are discarded with a similar ease. If you haven’t found your own answers by that point you’ll need to take a punt on ‘What actually happened’. It’s in the snippets of overheard conversations, passing strangers’ phone calls, and excised clauses of radio stations, that we must assign our meanings. Shaw could be any of his mother’s children; Victoria has left it too late to know her mother; the other people are our future, or our past, or something else. The text exists as cascading strata of potential context, and any desire to assign the Author’s meaning will lead to dissatisfaction.

This isn’t to suggest Harrison is teasing us, instead that he has perhaps spent a career trying to isolate prose, even the constituent images, with uniquely intractable yet fascinating results. Of course your mileage may vary – that’s the whole point.

AMA about my smiling grandparents

Preamble, establishing image, cliche about buses, news!

  1. My story, Grandparents, Smiling, £7.95, has just been published on the Fairlight Books website. This one came out of many conversations about psychogeography, a holiday to Cornwall and a real photo of my grandparents they used to have in their house.
  2. The excellent folks at r/Fantasy are organising a virtual con to deal with the reality that lockdowns suck. They’re running a panel on small press publishing on 22nd April and I’m delighted to say I’m going to be part of it. So if you have any questions for me (and the other talented publishing types doing it with me) hit me up next week!

Platitude, callback to establishing image, goodbye!

WorldCon 2019 schedule

Only a couple of days until I head to my very first WorldCon (I got into SFF publishing properly late in 2014. I live in London. Insert facepalm emoji here). The last few years have been wild and unpredictable in the best possible ways and that’s all because of the most lovely SFF community.

So heading to Dublin to hang out with friends old and new – and meet some face-to-face for the first time – is A Big Deal for me. Add the fact that it’s the first con I’ll be flying the Titan flag at and, well, eep!

Of course, my schedule has mutated into an all-encompassing beast of terror, so I’ll spend the entire weekend vibrating at a caffeine-induced 5.4MHz and be grabbing fistfuls of any snack I see at events, drive-by style. More importantly, here’s the publishing stuff I’m doing!

Unsung Stories at WorldCon

No stall this year, I’m afraid, so we won’t be selling any books. However, we’ve donated some shiny treats so make sure to check out the freebies table when you get there.

We’ve had so much love from readers and reviewers across the globe, so I couldn’t turn up the chance to say thank you. I remain immensely proud of everything Unsung has achieved, and these authors are well, well worth getting to know.

Non-UK types in particular, this one’s for you because we only distribute from the UK. Get them before they’re gone…

The Titan Party

Friday night is the Titan Party. It looks like it’s going to be utterly immense, and I will take precisely 0.01% of the credit for that. Titan publicists Lydia Gittins and Polly Grice have absolutely nailed this, so this will be my highlight of the con.

Panel – What I Learned Along the Way

Saturday, 17 Aug 2019: 15:00 – 15:50, Wicklow Room-3 (CCD)

Writing is a many wondrous thing filled with highs and lows, but those lows can be really tough to navigate either after a great success or after a lack of success. Rejection is something every writer has to face, but how do writers keep writing in the face of failure? What lessons have they learned along the way? Our panelists share the ups and downs of a writing life.

Aliette de Bodard, Ian R MacLeod, Karl Schroeder (Tor Books) and the mighty Nina Allan

Kaffeeklatsch

Sunday, 18 Aug 2019: 11:00 – 11:50, Level 3 Foyer (KK/LB) (CCD)

I’ve never done a Kaffeeklatsch before. I assume I will be clutching coffee. My German in terrible.

Panel: Getting Published and Staying Published

Sunday, 18 Aug 2019: 13:00 – 13:50, ECOCEM Room (CCD)

You have a two-book deal with a mainstream publisher. Huzzah! So, after those two books, what happens next—not just immediately, but across years. Panelists share their experiences and expectations, offering advice and notes on what they wish they had known.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), E. C. Ambrose, Michelle Sagara and Natasha Bardon (HarperVoyager UK)

Unthology 11, featuring… me!

I get to start the week with good news because it’s just been announced that I will have a story in the forthcoming Unthology 11, published on 25th July 2019.

It’s got a typically gorgeous cover and will no doubt contain some of the finest new writing to emerge from the indie press scene (including Angela Readman!), and my story. If you’re not already a fan, this is a great time to pick an issue up.

9781910061589

It’s a story I’m particularly proud of, trying to make sense of some of the insanities of London – of which there are many. Bishopsgate weird is now a thing.

You can pre-order through Wordery, or ask your local indie bookseller, because they’re probably aces as well.

The cheese sandwich of despair

“A linguistic energy, trivial and tireless, will triumph over my very memory.”

– Roland Barthes

The Fyre documentary documents the catastrophic failure of a luxury festival on a tropical island, featuring core contemporary storytelling mechanics – a three-act journey, interesting characters, glamorous settings, heroes and villains, and more.

It’s a compelling testament to how easily led we are when we think collectively, and how individual wills are subsumed by Billy McFarland’s transparent lunacy, best evidenced by the lengths one might go to to secure mineral water for thousands of punters, or that cheese sandwich. The interviews reveal a rather Arendtian banality of organisational and individual failure, as well as deception and fraud.

But behind all the chatter about McFarland’s chutzpah and the empathy with/schadenfreude at the interviews with the affluent punters who ended up stranded on Great Exuma, behind the commentary on the hollow power of aspirational marketing, behind even the brutal turmoil dumped on the innocent islanders, something got under my skin.

The problem with selling an idea

The documentary tells us people were sold a dream. A few blank tiles on instagram and a star-studded video was all they needed to sell thousands of tickets. It was an ingeniously delivered campaign, taking pure distillate of idea and turning it into cash. The only problem was that the transaction of ideas that couldn’t survive in reality. It was a thought experiment by and for millennials, asking us, exactly how much of the dream of wealth can we buy in a single transaction?

I have sympathy for the punters in the documentary, vapid as they clearly were. They’re rich yuppies, with no appreciation for the struggles the vast majority of people, emblematic of why wealth is so pernicious, sure. But Fyre was an affront to the basic values of their community – Wealth must be traded for experience, because those experiences define an individual’s value. Imagine: ‘You weren’t at Fyre? Oh you missed out, it was out of this world…’ It was out of this world, and you’re out of the club.

That dynamic is an amplification of something we all share.

FOMO

It’s there, undermining our agency, however rarefied the air of our community. We all have something we know we should read/watch/see/visit/taste/hear/play, from Malazan to an obscure paper on transcendental metaphysics only ever published in Latvia in the 18th century.

It’s a tyranny we impose on ourselves, one that we use to help navigate our subcultures. The anxiety of not having experienced everything my peers have drives me to engage further, to read more.

This means FOMO rests with the Other. Specifically, the other as an individual sees them. We have internal hierarcies of desire – say I want to read Machen before Ligotti before Harrison before VanderMeer. In the age of too much choice we inherently categorise our fears(OMO), both to understand ourselves and how we relate to our community.

Anxiety as a good thing

The beautiful thing is how we are using that anxiety to open things up. In publishing some are transforming FOMO into a frontier for cultural interaction, using the neurotic need to be the most knowledgeable to break open established ideas of what a narrative should be. You can see FOMO’s power in the strength of the counter-reactions to this exploration. The F is dominant, with deep-rooted insecurities being probed whenever we see anyone further out than us.

Say culture is a beach, those safe under an umbrella may react to the lone swimmer heading for the horizon with anger – How dare they endanger themselves? And endanger me if they need rescuing? No matter if that swimmer has seen a beautiul island, out of sight from shore, and makes it there with ease. From the beach, they’ve just taken a wild gamble, and left everyone else behind.

In the same way that within our communities wide gulfs can exist between individual members, between other communities it only gets worse. So yes, it’s easy to laugh at the fools with more money than sense, stranded in a disappointing reality as the label saying, Paradise, coming soon blows off in the wind. But we’ve all done it, assumed something had value because everyone else was doing it too.

Anxiety is, for me at least, about control. I’m perfectly happy on a rubber ring, floating in the sun and watching the swimmers pass back and forth across the archipelago, marvelling at the elegant bridges they decide to build when they arrive together. For me it’s as much about knowing who goes to each island as it is visiting myself. But that ease with missing out doesn’t come naturally, and having made the decision to let go of my FOMO doesn’t mean I always manage it.

No mo’ FOMO

This is what the Fyre documentary told me – it’s not our fears that create the problem, but how they are used against us. Primarily to sell things. It’s a fascinatingly sophisticated, but crushingly unimaginative trend. Ironically, McFarland’s delusion of grandeur is also a total failure of imagination.

Those orange tiles, shared by influencers on the payroll are the quintessence of satisfying desire as a transaction, and not an emotional validation. The image is taken for reality, our desires focusing on the expression of desire instead of what is desirous. That cheese sandwich is the deepest fears of the consumer age given form.

It doesn’t strike me as a sustainable direction of travel. The reversion to barbarism touched on in the documentary – thousands of affluent young people separated from all the power of their wealth, literally pissing out the borders of their territory – shows how the absence of a fulcrum destroys us. Without values to revert to, whilst the facts of their situation were tolerable, the shock of the change in context wasn’t.

The centre cannot hold because it was sold decades ago. Now, all too often, we trade in FOMO, using it to define daily interactions and choices, and how we navigate the world. But like all fears, unless we truly embrace and understand it, it can be our downfall.

 

 

News of Titanic proportions

They say good things come in threes*. They also say you can’t have too much of a good thing, and something about cakes and eating. This January I decided to see what happens when you take all these idioms, smash them together in a particle accelerator and paint the results in glitter.

A particularly shiny part of the results has just entered the visible spectrum in the form of an article in The Bookseller. I am delighted, and still somewhat shocked, to tell you I’m going to be the new Managing Editor at Titan from February.

In a bizarre twist of semiotics, I have become news. Yesterday I was just an editor; today I’m realising it’s a weirdly pertinent time to be reading Barthes.

The really wonderful thing about the whole process is that coming to Titan feels a bit like coming home (I did say that, and I do mean it). Titan have been steadily building a list, balancing commercial and literary ambitions, featuring fascinating genre writers who do all the kinds of stuff that I love. They’ve brought Nina Allan to new audiences, picked up Matt Hill, Helen Marshall’s new novel, and gave Nod by Adrian Barnes a fresh life, for instance.

They’ve clearly been paying attention to the small press scene, picking up work from Unsung, Dead Ink, Bluemoose and more. It’s a list that doesn’t operate in isolation, but is trying to be (part of) something bigger.

All of which is to say, of course, eep. This is a big, real, emotional thing for me and I couldn’t be more excited. I hope you’ll all enjoy coming on the ride with me.

 * Dad Mode: On. | Moving House Mode: On.

I just swore at all of FantasyCon in one go…

FantasyCon really is a wonderful thing. Not only did I see countless wonderful people, I got to read a new story in public, speak on two panels, stage a miraculous recovery from the fringes of hangover death, run a really busy book launch, break out of my AirBnB, catch up with rumours about myself and, rather improbably, win an award…

It’s entirely humbling to win the 2018 award for the Best Independent Publisher. I mean this humbling:

That’s me trying not to burst into tears in the middle of the ceremony.*

Also, I’m sorry the first thing I said to you, FantasyCon, was, ‘Holy fuck…’

Much more importantly, however, I also forgot the dedication – so that’s coming here. You may have seen the news about Martin Cox earlier in the year. Martin died at the start of 2018, which was an awful and unfair thing.

Martin was the designer behind the look of everything Unsung from logo to running heads. His skill speaks for itself. He was also an absolute gentleman and a friend.

So Martin, this one’s for you – and I’m sorry I forgot to tell everyone when I had the chance.

Although, if there is an afterlife I’m pretty sure he’s having a giggle at my expense right now…

* Thanks Vince Haig for the photo. Also for being part of the sustainable future of Unsung along with Dan Coxon and Stark Holborn. Their worth can not be underestimated.

The Island of Dreaming Beasts

Crowdfunding is a mad old thing, isn’t it? It’s a slippery, tricksy little git which has all the hallmarks of publishing’s trademark factor – alchemy. You can add all the same ingredients and get totally different results every time. If you’re really lucky you might even get some idea why.

However! There are two Kickstarters going on right now which have got it right, which I recommend you checking out. Bonanza days for fans of weird fiction.

This Dreaming Isle

After the success of 2084 last year, it was inevitable that we’d do another Kickstarter over at Unsung Stories. So when editor Dan Coxon came to me with an anthology idea, contributor list and fistful of stories…

This Dreaming Isle a collection of dark fantasy, weird and horror fiction dedicated to the landscape of the United Kingdom. And it’s another ridiculous contributor list, so all kudos to Dan for pulling that together.

We launched it last month, with the campaign finishing this Thursday, so you’ve got a couple more days to get in on the Kickstarter exclusives. And that cover artwork is by Jordan Grimmer. He’s ace.

Disturbing the Beast

Boudicca Press are a new outfit dedicated to publishing new weird, literary and relationship fiction by women writers in the UK. Basically, they’re 100% on point for right now. It’s run by Helen and Nici, a pair of editors with bucketsful of intelligence, experience and passion. They’re Good People and they’re doing A Good Thing.

The Kickstarter for their launch collection is halfway through and they’re very nearly there – so if you’re reading this, go check it out, and get behind the project.

They’re publishing new stories from Aliya Whiteley and Kirsty Logan, so there’s two reasons for you right there.

(I recently read Logan’s The Rental Heart, and it was gorgeous, lyrical, frequently surprising, and frankly far too racy to be reading on public transport in places. Loved it.)

One last thing to say about Boudicca Press and indie publishing – a few years back I was just a guy with a logo, a bunch of motivation and the good faith of some excellent writers. That Unsung has turned into what it has is a source of constant wonder to me, and is thanks to lots of you out there.

The Boudicca eds are just as good as me, just as motivated, and already have excellent writers on board. With a bit of love and faith now, they’ll be able to bring us the goods for years to come!

Nine Worlds 2018

That’s right, Nine Worlds time! This weekend the Novotel Hammersmith is home to the full-regalia geeky con. All the SFF content, Knightmare Live, lectures on why Bill & Ted 1 is the only film to get the philosphy of time travel right, and some top-drawer cosplay. They had a guy dressed as Londo Mollari* last year, FFS.

I’m going to be there all weekend, wearing a different hat every day. So if you’re at the con make sure to come and say hi!

  • The Only Way is Indie! I’m talking about indie publishing and all the wondrous things it represents at 5pm on Friday.
  • Pop-up stall! Unsung will be running a pop-up stall on theSaturday afternoon so you can all come and pick up books, including Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway and You Will Grow Into Them by Malcolm Devlin. Which is important because…
  • Verity Holloway and Malcolm Devlin are all over Sunday, and I’ll be there to watch them! They’re talking about things like the folkhorror revival, disability in SFF and intoxicants in fiction. And if that doesn’t sound like a good day out, what’s wrong with you?

It’s going to be lots of fun, as always – hopefully see you there!

 

 * What do you mean you don’t know who Londo Mollari is? Next you’ll be telling me you can’t tell Zafras from Zafras…

 

Unsung at the British Fantasy Awards

This is what us in the trade call A Good Day. The shortlists for the British Fantasy Awards were announced yesterday and I’m somewhat staggered to report that Unsung has got three nominations this year.

As well as Malcolm Devlin’s ridiculously good collection, You Will Grow Into Them, there are nominations for 2084, the anthology of dystopian fiction inspired by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four I edited, and Unsung Stories as the best indie press overall. If anyone asks, my official comment is: meep.

The shortlists are the usual cavalcade of excellence so to be associated with such a fine set of people and work is already entirely groovy. Also, pro tip: When getting nominated for awards use numbers as the book title so you come up first on the list*.

Best Anthology
· 2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
· Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
· Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
· New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
· Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Best Collection
· Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
· Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
· Tanith by Choice, by Tanith Lee (Newcon Press)
· Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
· You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories)

Best Independent Press
· Fox Spirit
· Grimbold Books
· Newcon Press
· Salt Publishing
· Unsung Stories

It’s great to see the other categories celebrating people like Nina Allan, Tade Thompson, RJ Barker, Lucy Hounsom’s podcasting, Anna Smith-Spark and the mighty TTA Press crew as well. There’s some fine work coming up at the moment. Just spare a thought for the poor buggers who have to judge the Best Fantasy Novel category – that’s a doozer.

* A long time ago, in a hangover far away I went to the Edinburgh Festival as part of a comedy sketch show. As part of Aaaaargh Productions – because it guaranteed we’d be first in every listing…