I’ve several times asked for recommendations for fiction by women writers, because my fiction reading is over 95% male, and that’s not good, either for me or society. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations have been people I’ve just bounced off.
But today I realised something obvious — I’ve been asking for SF/F writers, especially, because the vast majority of what I read is SF/F, but there’s a much better description of the kind of stuff I want, one I’ve referred to several times in the past — what Lance Parkin refers to as “the Gray tradition”.
The kind of thing Lance is talking about there is by far my favourite fiction reading. Lance has a long list in the top post there of the common characteristics of the books he’s talking about. I’ve excerpted below the ones that — I *think* — are the things that most appeal to me, but do read all the posts there, they’re all worth it:
Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.
Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.
Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.
The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.
History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.
The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.
Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.
Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.
The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.
They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.
There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).
There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.
The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.
Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.
Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.
The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.
If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.
Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.
Some of the books Lance talks about fitting into this genre are Lanark, the Narnia books, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Invisibles, most of Philip K Dick and Alan Moore’s stuff, the works of Borges, Iain Banks, Lovecraft, and Michael Chabon.
Some that I’d add that seem to me the same kind of thing, though of varying levels of quality — Cerebus, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, most of Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff, Lewis Carrol, Stewart Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool, some of Vonnegut, Bryan Talbot. And sort of proto-Gray-Tradition people would include Blake, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde.
The only problem with this is one of the *other* characteristics Lance points out as being common to all these books:
Be written by men
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Several of the writers who’ve contributed to recent Obverse anthologies — I’m thinking especially of Elizabeth Evershed, Kelly Hale and Helen Angove — have done stuff which has the same *feeling* to me as many of these books, and I’m sure the forthcoming women-only Faction Paradox anthology will have a lot more, as Faction Paradox is, as much as anything, just a label saying “this kind of stuff” (my own forthcoming Faction Paradox novel fits almost embarrassingly into the description Lance gives).
But… there’s not much I know of. Susanna Clarke sort of fits, but her only novel so far came out ten years ago. Holly keeps recommending Scarlett Thomas to me, and having looked at the synopses of her novels she definitely seems to fit, but I read her nonfiction book on writing, Monkeys With Typewriters, and found her writing persona to be revolting — narcissistic, omphaloskeptic, and patronising towards any fiction that isn’t “literary” for the narrow definition of literary that gains the approval of the Observer’s books editor. I’ll probably try reading her sooner or later, simply because she does seem to fit my tastes perfectly other than that, but that book *really* put me off.
Are there any other women who write this sort of thing? There *must* be — I know enough women who *like* this kind of thing that there must be at least *some* women writing it. But of course, it’s entirely possible that if there are, it’s being labelled in a completely different genre to anything I’d normally look at. For all I know there’s some wonderful metafictional postmodern platonist romance novelist out there who is as highly regarded in her genre as Alan Moore is in his.
And if there is, I want to read her stuff…
Just to whet your appetites a little. The book is still being edited, and there may be rewrites ahead, so these may not all be in the final book, but here are ten sentences chosen at random…
These Mal’akhim are spoken of throughout Araby in dark whispers and legends, and are capable of taking the shape of a man, but are neither human nor ensouled, and should they go without the human blood on which they make their beastly repasts, they soon begin to decay into a foul slurry.
If you think being a pretty, skinny little girlie gets you hit on by too many repulsive men, you need to try being a pretty (if I do say so myself — I *am* fucking fabulous), skinny little girlie with a British accent in the Midwestern US, attached to a political campaign which acts like a gigantic Strange Man Magnet.
While my illustrious colleague hath told a tale of the past, of Allah’s creation of the universe, and of the war between Jannat and Jahannam, my tale, no less fantastic, is a tale of the present, of a far-off, distant land, many leagues from here.
They’re treating Matt Nelson like he was Zac Efron (look, I have a little sister who was way into High School Musical, don’t judge me) or someone, and it’s a bit freaky.
Sometimes you couldn’t tell how nutty they were for a while — they’d be talking about normal stuff like how we should go back on the gold standard or something, and then they’d start in on how the Republican and Democrat parties were really fronts for two rival groups of aliens who secretly controlled the world, or how there was a mad god trapped in the centre of the earth that was controlling everyone’s thoughts.
“I mean he’s the Antichrist, Dave.”
It has been suggested by some that I should put down for posterity an account of the circumstances behind my induction into the organisation to which this missive, written currente calamo but not, I hope, to be taken as evidence of cacoethes scribendi, is dedicated, and which it is meet not to mention, at least in terms which the profane masses will readily comprehend.
There may be some confusion here, though, and Civitata may be an aspect of sakīnah, a word which means a blessing sent by Allah, but with overtones of “dwelling place” or sanctuary.
The typical Democratic voter, even those who support him, says “he’s a nice enough guy, I guess” and little else (the Republicans say “he’s a Communist atheist who wants to sell out our country”, but then they’d say that about Ronald Reagan these days).
On one side there’s a group of… I was going to say “people”, but in one sense they’re something closer to what you’d get if you crossed the Greek gods with the mathematics department at Cambridge University, while in another they’re more like laws of nature but with very slightly more personality.
“When the seventh head speaks, the War will end…”
In 11th century Arabia, Shahrazad tells her final story, on the
thousand and second night.
In 19th century Britain, Sir Richard Burton is sent on the most
important mission of his life.
In 21st century America, a serial killer is stalking a Presidential campaign.
And the hero has been written out of the novel.
“…and the true War will begin.”
Faction Paradox: Head Of State by Andrew Hickey. Coming soon from Obverse Books
One of the larger running themes in political journalism — and especially blogging — over the last few weeks has been that there are rumours of rapprochement between Labour and the Lib Dems — Clegg and Balls jokingly exchanging tweets, Balls describing Clegg as a man of principle and so on. The implication has been that the two parties are preparing for the possibility of coalition, and there has been a lot of talk about Labour adopting various Lib Dem policies, and about the Lib Dems stressing their more left-wing positions and points of difference with the Tories.
The line in most political blogs has basically been “Labour are no longer confident of winning a majority, and want to leave the possibility of coalition open”.
Now, I don’t discount this as a possibility, and I think it a consummation devoutly to be wished — short of a Lib Dem majority government or a Lib Dem/Green coalition, a Lib/Lab coalition would be my preferred government. I would be ecstatic if these rumours were true, and even more so if the election made them a reality.
But I don’t believe that’s what’s happening for a second — or rather, I think that we would be seeing exactly these stories appearing now whether or not there was any behind-the-scenes planning for a Lib/Lab coalition. And I’m quite amazed that none of the political blogs I read have mentioned this.
The reason is simple. From the Lib Dems’ point of view, it’s a good idea to talk this up as much as possible — we’ve lost a lot of left-wing support because of the coalition with the Tories, and the single most convincing argument against voting Lib Dem now is “they’ll let the Tories in”. We need to win as many of those left-leaning voters back as possible, and aligning ourselves more with Labour is a way of doing that.
But it’s also, paradoxical as it may seem, in Labour’s interest to make the Lib Dems look good.
The first reason is simple — they want to keep many of the ex-Lib Dem voters who are now supporting them, and the best way to do that is to align their policies, somewhat, with the Lib Dems’. As the election gets closer, some of those voters will drift back, as always happens. If Labour can say “well, we have the policies you like from the Lib Dems, and we’ll probably go into coalition with them anyway”, then those voters are more likely to feel comfortable sticking with Labour rather than drifting back.
But the second reason is that Labour need to encourage *some* people to stop voting Labour and to vote Lib Dem instead. Honestly.
The next election is going to be a close one — it’s likely to lead to a slim Labour majority, but Labour’s lead in the polls is a fairly low one for an opposition party at this point in a parliament, and it might lead to a hung parliament, especially if the economic recovery continues.
So Labour needs not only to maximise its own number of seats, but to minimise the number of Tory wins, either to get an actual majority or, failing that, to make sure it’s the largest party in a hung parliament.
Now have a look at this. My apologies for linking to the Egregious Tory Tosser, but in this piece he’s largely correct. I’ve been saying all along that the Lib Dems will win about thirty-five seats in the next election, and he’s agreeing with me.
But look at the breakdown — of the twenty-two seats he thinks the Lib Dems will lose (and I largely agree with his assessment), eight will go to Labour, while fourteen would go to the Tories. And this will be entirely because of people moving from the Lib Dems to Labour.
Of course, if Labour and the Tories hadn’t both conspired to keep the godawful voting system we’ve got now, that wouldn’t be happening, but they both made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it — people switching from Lib Dems to Labour will actually reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in seats.
This means that the best strategy for Labour is the old anti-Tory “progressive front” nonsense — if they can come as close as possible to saying “Labour and the Lib Dems are on the same side against those evil Tories” without actually saying that, they’ll keep as many ex-Lib Dems as possible in Labour/Tory marginals and the odd three-way marginal, but give Labour supporters ‘permission’ to vote Lib Dem in Lib Dem/Tory seats (Labour have no fear of losing in the tiny number of Labour/Lib Dem marginals, though I’ll do everything in my power to see that John Leech, at least, keeps his seat).
So in the next sixteen months, leading up to the general election, it’s in the best interests of both Labour and the Lib Dems to portray the two parties as more alike than different. Expect more and more talk of Lib/Lab coalitions, how Vince Cable used to be a Labour member, how Andrew Adonis used to be a Lib Dem, how Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband ganged up to vote down the Tories on some minor but symbolic piece of legislation, and all that sort of thing.
For precisely the same reason, it’ll be in the Tories’ best interests to portray the Lib Dems as being like the Tories, so expect a constant run of stories, all coming from the Tory side, about right-wing Lib Dems like Jeremy Browne or David Laws “considering defection”. Again, whether those stories are true or not will have *absolutely no bearing* on whether they get reported — and when they do, the stories will be coming from the Tories, and the denials will come from the Lib Dems.
Honestly, this was obviously going to be the strategy from the *second* the AV referendum was lost, and it gives us no information whatsoever about what will happen *after* the election. It’s just each party doing the game-theoretically optimal thing in a situation with as stupid a voting system as we’ve got, and I’m amazed so many people seem to have taken the stories at face value.
It’s just yet another reason we need a sane voting system…