21 September 2012

Matt Kimpton

Just a note to record my sadness at the recent passing of Matt Kimpton, a short-story writer who moved in some of the same circles as me and whose writing I very much admired. His death at the age of 35 is tragically premature.

I didn't know Matt well -- we'd never met in person -- but we had enough of the same friends that I felt the benefit of his witty, self-deprecating humour on Facebook and elsewhere. Much of his work was in oral storytelling -- he held the position of Chief Skald of Suffolk from 2010 to 2011 -- but he also wrote with humour and humanity about his life-threatening illness, notably here in the Independent. His stories, should you choose to seek them out, were 'Life After Queth' in Short Trips: Farewells, 'Shadow of Times Before' in The Panda Book of Horror and 'Storyteller' in A Romance in Twelve Parts. His final published fiction (as far as I know) is due to be released in The Casebook of the Manleigh Halt Irregulars, one of the titles in Year 2 of the Obverse Quarterly, due out later in the year.

'Storyteller' is a wonderful piece, set in Anglo-Saxon England and drawing heavily on the skaldic storytelling tradition. Like all the authors in A Romance in Twelve Parts, Matt kindly used his contribution as a springboard to provide a guest drabble for my own story, 'A Hundred Words from a Civil War' (it's number LXIV, and one of my favourites). I very much hoped that I'd be able to get a longer City of the Saved story out of him one of these days.

I'm very sorry to have seen the last of Matt. He was a funny, generous, popular man who will be very much missed. I'll be thinking of his family and friends as they say farewell to him today.

19 September 2012

The Other Problem of Susan

In an effort to keep better track of my reading and book ownership than my ageing parental mind can manage these days, I recently joined Goodreads, a highly specialised social networking site which enables users to keep track of each other's reading habits, post reviews, discuss books and the like -- and, if they're authors, promote their own stuff, which I need to get round to doing properly. Given the rate at which people typically read books, it's not the busiest forum on the internet, but I'm finding it useful and fun so far.

(If you're on Goodreads, I'm here -- and I do own more than 450 books, it's just that entering them all takes time.)

One thing I'm trying to use it for is posting mini-reviews of books as I finish them -- I've managed so far, although as I only joined a month or so ago this only applies to six books to date. This should help this blog in the long run, as all I'll need to do to create a book review roundup post is cut and paste from Goodreads. (I've got a fair bit of catching up to do, though. At some point I'll try to transfer the reviews I've posted here in the other direction too. I've already done it for Dune.)

Which brings me to this: the venerable British fantasist Alan Garner recently released an adult sequel to his first two novels, the children's fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. In honour of this, I reread the first two books for probably the first time since I was about fifteen, before proceeding to the sequel, Boneland. Here are the Goodreads reviews, written as I worked my way through the series.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Well, Garner could certainly write, even in his twenties. The prose is bleakly, laconically poetic, the dialogue manages to be memorable rather than blandly archaic, and the book's full of images which have stayed with me in the 25 years between readings. The sequence of squirming through a tunnel deep underground may actually be responsible for my strong dislike of caves as an adult, and I found rereading those passages physically stressful, to the extent that I had to keep setting the book aside and reminding myself of where I really was. That's good writing.

Amongst all that, the plot barely matters, but it's amusing to realise now the extent to which Garner simply took the story of The Lord of the Rings and reset it in Cheshire, with children playing the hobbits. The Cadellin-Grimnir-Nastrond setup is irresistibly reminiscent of Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron, and the book features dwarves, elves, trolls, farmers, mines, goblins under a different name and a beautiful woman in a forest handing out gifts (although many of these, the "mara" troll-women especially, are creatively different from Tolkien's). There's even a jewel -- the titular Weirdstone -- which has to be taken to an arbitrary place in order for the plot to end.

It's obvious, though, that plot isn't really Garner's priority. (At one point, a random unexplained stranger arrives on a magic horse, gives everyone a lift from one geographical location to another, then buggers off again.) The story is compelling, which is what matters, and it acts as a framework for Garner's haunting words and images.

I'm following this up with The Moon of Gomrath, as a prelude to reading Garner's demicentennial sequel, Boneland.

The Moon of Gomrath

This is an altogether different proposition from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The prose is still bleakly beautiful, but the characters are better developed, more assertive and more independent after their experiences of the last novel, and the story is far more creative. The imagination which created elements like the mara and the lyblacs for the last book is given full rein here. The bodachs, the palugs, above all the Brollachan, are all weird and disturbing creations not found elsewhere in fantasy.

That's not to say there are no influences. There are a few Lord of the Rings echoes still -- the magical McGuffin is now a series of ancient bracelets of lunar power, one of which is revealed to be wielded by the last book's Galadriel substitute -- and the focus on the Morrigan as primary villain recalls CS Lewis' White and Green Witches in the Narnia books. (Rather shockingly for a trilogy whose third volume has just been published, it was less than half a decade between the publication of The Last Battle and that of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.)

That said, The Moon of Gomrath's evocation of a matriarchal Wild Magic pre-dating the masculine wizardly magic of Cadellin and co prefigures multiple examples of children's fiction, from the weird hierarchy of High, Dark, Light and Wild Magics in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence to Terry Pratchett's treatment of witchcraft in the Tiffany Aching books.

For me there's nothing quite so memorably upsetting as the underground sequences in Weirdstone, but the developing both of Garner's cosmology and of the individual characters of the children (especially Susan, emerging triumphantly from her brother's shadow here) make this the better, more sophisticated book. The hints of Susan's and Colin's futures (we're told casually on the penultimate page that the latter "never found rest again") make the eventual publication of Boneland, if not inevitable, then something many of this book's readers have probably been waiting fifty years for.


Boneland is essentially the story of the psychoanalysis of Colin, the male co-protagonist of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath -- now an adult of indeterminate middle age, working as a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank and living in a shack at Alderley Edge. Beyond a few significant flashbacks he has no memory of his childhood adventures, but he retains the trauma of them, especially the disappearance of his twin sister Susan.

Boneland takes place in the same landscape as the earlier Alderley books, but it is no longer the haunt of elves, dwarves and wizards. This book's fantastical elements arise more subtly from Susan's implicit fate (only foreshadowed in The Moon of Gomrath, although Colin's reading of the outcome is convincing in the light of what we saw there), and what emerges as the unusual nature of his analyst. There's also a series of time-hopping reversions to the prehistoric life of a man who turns out to be a Homo erectus shaman also inhabiting Cheshire, seeking a successor to his post of observing and thus maintaining the world, whose relation to the main narrative is definite but elusive.

Though of no great length, Boneland is a dense, slippery text which starts off close to incomprehensible but becomes crystal clear as one learns to inhabit the storytelling. That's the kind of reading experience I always find rewarding, but it's not the light read its predecessors were.

In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as the revisionist texts which reinterpret much-loved works of children's fantasy through a filter of adult understanding and knowledge: Lev Grossman's Magicians sequence and Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan" (both dealing with the Narnia books) spring most readily to mind, but one could also cite Alan Moore's Lost Girls (Alice, Peter Pan, Oz) or Geoff Ryman's Was (Oz).

In most such stories, adventures are re-examined as traumatic, paradigm-shaking experiences which can neither be revisited nor fully shared, but which will colour the rest of the adventurer's life; child protagonists are followed into their problematic adulthood, with the psychological fallout of their pasts unflinchingly surveyed; and parental figures, even God-analogues, are interrogated and found wanting in benevolence and responsibility.

Boneland is exactly that kind of revisitation of past innocence with a cynical half-century of hindsight -- indeed, the Alderley books are of essentially the same vintage as the Narnia cycle, with less than half a decade separating Weirdstone (1960) from The Last Battle (1956). However, Boneland has the unique qualification that it's not a piece of sophisticated fanfic based around the Alderley books, but the authentic work of their original author. If CS Lewis had survived until 2008 and suddenly written an eighth Narnia book at the age of 110, it would have been comparable.

The original books are essential reading for fully understanding Garner's own Problem of Susan (although there's one non-revelation which might have been more effective if read in isolation from them). The primary source of Colin's trauma particularly makes no sense without such background knowledge: suffice it to say that what Colin thinks of as a curse may be, given its source, the nearest thing available to a blessing. The narrative is rife with this kind of unresolved moral inversion, however, and in the end the subjective ambiguity of Colin's childhood experiences grows to dominate the book.

Although I loved the Alderley books as a child, I'm ashamed to say that I've not actually read Alan Garner's other adult novels, nor even his other children's novels, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift. My parents told me at the age of 10ish that they'd be too difficult for me, and I somehow never caught up with them later in life. I intend to rectify this soon.

12 September 2012

Feeling Testy

Like most male authors who profess to have a clue about feminism, I sometimes fret about unconscious gender bias in my work. There's no real way to tell whether your work is accidentally sexist: I try my hardest to avoid many of the well-known pitfalls, from the trivial (like making characters male -- or indeed heterosexual, white etc -- by default) to the absolutely appalling (like the casual use of rape as a plot point), but heaven only knows how many solecisms I'm committing unwittingly.

One test which is often applied to texts (usually films) is the Bechdel Test, first posited by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 and taken up by feminist commentators since. The Bechdel Test proposes that, as a kind of minimum threshold of gender awareness:
  1. A film should have two women in it.
  2. They should talk to each other.
  3. The conversation should be about something other than a man.
As I say (and leaving aside the tricky issue of how the character in the comic knows in detail what conversations a film might include before she goes to see it), this test was designed for films, and it's not infallible even there. Some films have settings which would realistically exclude women; some have no dialogue; some are entirely about penguins.  None of these approaches are inherently anti-feminist. However, astonishing numbers of works fail the Bechdel Test without any such excuse.

It's instructive, though not entirely equivalent, to apply the test to literary works to see whether its criteria are being met, and if not, whether this is for a good reason or a useless one.

What follows is a Bechdel-Test tour of my published work. If whiny post-feminist man-angst annoys you, you're probably better off going and watching Steel Magnolias or Fight Club, depending on preference.

My entries in The Book of the War (2002): A tricky one to start off with, as The Book as a whole has virtually no dialogue, and my segments certainly don't. One can assume that Amanda Legend Lefcourt and Dauphine Malatesta had conversations together, but they were presumably at least partly about Lord Foaming Sky, whom Malatesta assassinated. I think we have to discount this one as inconclusive. 0/0.

'Scapegoat' (2003): The entire story is two blokes talking. At the end, one of them uses a woman for transitory sexual relief. A pretty ignominious failure at the second hurdle. 0/1.

Of the City of the Saved... (2004): Several examples, thankfully (although it should be pointed out that there's a heck of a lot more scope for a variety of scenes in an average-length novel than in an average-length movie). A little under half the significant characters are of the female persuasion (not all the remainder are male). Laura Tobin and Mesh Cos, Mesh and Kyme Janute (twice), Tobin and Compassion III and Tobin and Civitata, all talk of things other than the late Ved Mostyn. Admittedly three of those characters were originally the same woman, while Janute is accidentally rather than essentially female, having like all the Manfolk been born male. Still, it would be hard to argue that this doesn't pass. 1/2.

'Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants' (2004): There's only one woman in the story. This is mostly because the majority of the characters are either Jason Kane or a clone of him, but still. However I justify it, this one's a fail. 1/3.

Peculiar Lives (2005): This is also a bit difficult, as: a) the narrator's a man and we see most of what happens through his eyes; b) it's a deliberate pastiche of a particular type of inter-War SF, where articulate women weren't thick on the ground. Even so, I think it scrapes through: Emily and Freija have an exchange in Erik's hearing about Emily's past (or lack of one). You could discount it on the technicality that Freija's too young to be considered a woman, but I'm sure that's not what the original rule had in mind. 2/4.

'Minions of the Moon' (2005): Iris Wildthyme attempts to seduce Harry Peerless, who is in fact Olivia Somerset in drag. A cunningly disguised pass. 3/5.

'The Long Midwinter' (2005): A bit of a mess generally, this story has the Doctor and two obscure companions I didn't care about (one male, one female) visiting the posthuman inhabitants of a brown dwarf world. The locals have a sensible male-female mix, but we mostly see them interacting individually with the visitors, and there are no conversations between women. Fails the test, clearly. 3/6.

'The Ruins of Time' (2006): This time the TARDIS's complement includes the Doctor's granddaughter Susan and her redoubtable history teacher Barbara -- as well as Barbara's companion Ian and the Doctor himself -- but the pair of them don't actually have a conversation together. Nor do they talk to any other women, because every other character in the story's a hermaphrodite. Another fail (unless, of course, you count the hermaphrodites as both men and women). 3/7.

Five vignettes and a co-written story in Collected Works (2006): Individually some of these fail the Bechdel Test, but individually the vignettes are so short it hardly seems fair to apply a diversity standard to them.  Taken en masse (and ignoring the fact that the members of the Quire are technically part of the same metahuman individual whose gender is indeterminate), we see Bev Tarrant talking to Dorso about the Quire's position on the Braxiatel Collection, Bernice talking to Dorso about parenting styles, and Dorso talking to Incunabula (like Freija a girl rather than a woman, although in her case this is less certain) about complete nonsense. The co-written story, 'Future Relations', has a couple of conversations between Bernice and Verso, but they're all about Verso's boyfriend Parasiel. Nonetheless, an overall pass. 4/8.

Nursery Politics (2007): Bernice and Ithva the Draconian ambassador's wife (and imperial spy) have a lengthy conversation ranging through politics, literature, parenting and military history. Bernice also speaks at length to a character named Victoria, but 'she' turns out to be a neuter shapeshifting sponge with a fragmented polysexual personality. Pass. 5/9.

Predating the Predators (2008): Most of the main characters are women this time -- two of the three narrators and the primary villain -- although most of the supporting cast (an alien mad scientist aside) are male.  As the climax approaches there are several conferences and confrontations involving Imogen, Bernice, Elanore and Leustassavil, though none of these happen without men present. Still, for the test as phrased, it's a pass. 6/10.

'Battleship Anathema' (2009): No, this one's hopeless. Again it's a pastiche, but of something whose own gender balance isn't actually too bad. The longest scenes are Iris's conversations with Admiral Rex Halidom and Archdeacon Barnaby: there's no good reason for them to be male except that I wanted to write in the voices of Edward James Olmos and Dean Stockwell. There are female characters other than Iris, but very little's made of them. Big fail here. 6/11.

'A Hundred Words from a Civil War' (2011): In a drabble, every word counts, and a conversation between two people of the same gender can waste valuable words identifying them with more than a 'he' and 'she'. There are a number of contextless conversations where we don't know the gender of the speakers, but we can hardly count those. A scene between a female Pope and a vampire queen fails because they're discussing assassinating the (male) Mayor. Nonetheless, there's one scene which qualifies -- the trench-warfare segment in which Capt 'Spiky' Sperrin and Lt 'Fanny' Featherstone discuss the imminent zeppelin-zombie attack. This is mildly embarrassing, as I only changed the soldiers' sexes at the last minute. Still, another pass. 7/12.

Framing sequences for Tales of the City (2012): 'Akroates' is a meditative piece, with almost no action or dialogue. 'Apocalypse Day' brings together the characters (three female, four male, plus one husband) from the other stories in the book, but then splits them up so none of the women are talking to any of the others. I really have no idea why I did that, unless it's the convenience of the aforementioned 'he said' / 'she said' shortcut. A fail, and it really didn't need to be. 7/13.
Additionally, I'm sorry to say my Burning with Optimism's Flames story fails (due to being mostly about Roman Catholic priests in the past and present, although Imogen from Predating the Predators reappears), as does my recently completed novel (being largely about the patriarchal power structures of traditional stories). So even that feeble score's going to take a sharp downturn imminently.

Part of what this highlights is that the Bechdel Test, being designed for contemporary film, isn't actually very good at the less conservative end of science fiction. Futuristic material may have less excuse for marginalising women (hence Alien being the example given in that original strip), but SF can do things with gender that are an awful lot more radical than simply attempting parity between the sexes. Between them, my stories feature a busload of hermaphrodites, neuter individuals both organic and machine, naturally sex-changing characters, composite individuals, occasional mentions of trisexual species and a transvestite.

(This may sound like a parochial objection, but... well, mainstream fiction can also do transvestites.The Bechdel Test assumes rigid gender identities, such that characters can be unambiguously classed as "men" or "women", and that can be an issue in non-SF too. If two post-op male-to-female transsexuals discuss a pre-op friend, does that pass the Bechdel? If two Roman matrons discuss a eunuch slave, does that fail?)

This does make it particularly frustrating that 'The Ruins of Time' fails, because the hermaphrodite milieu is striving quite strenuously to question our (and cause the 1960s human characters to question their) accepted constructions of gender.

Mostly, though, I have to admit that my stories don't have that kind of mitigating factor. Which suggests that I really need to think harder about this kind of thing.