20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

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The Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel from pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. How do you define literary fiction?

I’ve written about this here but I actually now prefer Emma Darwin’s definition. Here’s an excerpt from it: ‘all fiction works by integrating the familiar (the world that readers experience themselves) with the new (what they don’t know themselves), in varying proportions… [but] when it comes to the proportions of originality to familiarity, there’s more originality, in more aspects (plot, character, prose, ideas etc. etc.) than in commercial fiction. The more that’s original and the more original it is, the more challenging it will be to read.’

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study

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I’m actually not as fervent a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as many others seem to be (I think her The Little Friend is a better novel, and that Tana French’s The Likeness takes on a number of the same themes more interestingly) but this was the first title that came to mind when I thought about characterisation. There are a number of vignettes that have stuck with me. Henry knowing everything about classical culture but only just finding out that man has landed on the moon, and struggling to believe it. The twins, Charles and Camilla, working out their alibi  – they’ve decided to say they were seeing a movie – and then starting to argue over the meaning of the movie that is their alibi for murder, because they’re twins and that’s what they do. The sweet stupidity of Bunny’s father as he dotes over the small children in his family, even as we know the harm his unthinking privilege can wreak.

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

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Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil did not get the love it deserved (especially given the inexplicable praise of his far inferior debut, Beasts of No Nation). It follows a black, gay teenager trying to fit in at his exclusive DC private school, but is distinguished by its prose, adopting an experimental literary style that effortlessly blends dialogue and interior monologue in a way that can occasionally be jolting but is usually exhilarating. Despite this, it’s not difficult to read at all; this was one of my top ten novels of 2018.

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

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Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, another massively under-appreciated novel that should have won all the prizes going in the year it was published, switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. This sounds confusing, but it isn’t; our brilliant protagonist, a woman called Jake, easily ties the two together. Half the novel is set on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of Britain; the other half is set in the Australian outback. It’s unusual to find a novel that’s both so intelligent and so moving, and this is why I’m waiting so impatiently for Evie Wyld’s new book.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

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Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is the best feminist dystopia I’ve ever read (sorry, Margaret Atwood). Set in the near future in Penrith, it follows a youngish woman, Sister, who strikes out from her regimented life in the town to join a female collective, Carhullan, in the wilderness. This novel is feminist not because it glorifies women, but because it explores both the violence and the love that develops in this single-sex settlement, and what women might be like if they lived and ran their own space. Everything Hall’s written is worth reading, but this remains my favourite – and given that it was first published in 2007, it now feels extraordinarily prescient.

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

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I have to second Rachel’s suggestion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll also add Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby, which I wrote about here as a guest post on At Home With Books. I’m not especially keen on most of Faulks’ novels, but this book, which starts with the disappearance of a Cambridge student in the 1970s, emerges from Faulks’ fascination with the human brain, and the ways in which it’s ill-adapted to a temporal existence. This picks up on the concerns expressed in his previous novel Human Traces and his subsequent novel A Possible Life, but I think Engleby is the best of the three. The narration is often weird but consistently fascinating, and Faulks writes so well about human consciousness, our sense of modernity, and what Siri Hustvedt might call ‘memories of the future’.

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

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My FAVOURITE thing. There are so many I could name, but I’ll go for Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, an exhilarating mix of literary and speculative fiction. This melts between reality and fantasy so effortlessly as it follows the stories of Ruth and Nao. I must re-read this.

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I love speculative literary fiction, as above, but it doesn’t always fall firmly enough into the realm of the speculative for me; so let’s say literary sci-fi. I know from bitter experience (writing my own!) that these two genres are not an easy combination, but when it’s pulled off, as it is in Nina Allen’s The Rift and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travelthe results can be extraordinary.

I don’t tend to tag anyone in posts, but if you haven’t done this tag already, I’d love to hear your answers!

Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review.

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.

Mid-Year Check-In Tag

Taken from Eric Karl Anderson’s (Lonesome Reader’s) YouTube video. A bit of a late mid-year check-in, but I arrived back from Australia on 30th June and went straight to another conference in Birmingham in the first week of July, so I’m behind!

1. How many books have you read so far this year? 91 (was 85 at the end of June). This is definitely above average for me – I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, so that’s probably contributed.

2. What’s your favourite book so far this year? Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has probably made the deepest impression upon me so far in its beautiful mixture of historical fiction and speculative fantasy set in the Peruvian rainforest.

3. What’s the most disappointing book you’ve read this year? Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater is probably the one I feel most irritated about; I’d been so hoping for a brilliant coming-of-age novel set in the north-east and instead I got standard-issue literary writing coupled with no sense of place.

4. What genre have you read most this year? This is impossible to answer, as I do read a lot of genres, but my reading has probably skewed towards science fiction and speculative literary fiction.

5. Name a new favourite author that you’ve discovered this year. Natasha Pulley, as above – I also very much enjoyed her The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – but I was also bowled over by Nina Allan’s The Riftand can’t wait to read her first novel, The Race, although her latest, The Dollmakerdidn’t quite land for me.

6. What’s the most surprisingly good book you’ve read so far this year? Ha, this has to go to Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which I initially refused to read because I thought it was going to be crude and sensationalist, and then liked so much that it made my personal Women’s Prize shortlist.

7. What are your favourite and most anticipated 2019 releases? Some of my original picks still haven’t come out (or have been moved to 2020 very sad about this Evie Wyld), but here are some new picks [links to Goodreads]:

  • I’m a huge fan of Ann Patchett, so I can’t wait to read her latest, The Dutch House (September): ‘Set over the course of five decades… a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past.’
  • I loved Amy Waldman’s The Submission, so I’m looking forward to her second novel, A Door in the Earth (August),which focuses on ‘Parveen Shamsa, a college senior in search of a calling, [who] feels pulled between her charismatic and mercurial anthropology professor and the comfortable but predictable Afghan-American community in her Northern California hometown’.
  • This is already out (May), but I’ve heard great things about Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, OtherI wasn’t a fan of her Blonde Roots but I love this blurb: ‘follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.’
  • I’ve long admired Tash Aw’s writing but find his novels weirdly forgettable; I’m hoping that his latest, We, the Survivors (out since April), will break the trend. It focuses on Ah Hock, a poor inhabitant of a Malaysian fishing village who murders a migrant worker from Bangladesh.
  • I’m so excited for Louise Doughty’s new novel, Platform Seven (August)like everyone else, I was impressed by Apple Tree Yard, but personally, I felt that her last novel, Black Watertook her writing to new heights. And just look at the blurb! ‘Two deaths on Platform Seven. Two fatalities in eighteen months – surely they’re connected? No one is more desperate to understand what connects them than Lisa Evans herself. After all, she was the first of the two to die.’ It sounds like Point Horror meets literary fiction, and I am in.
  • In genre fiction, I’m definitely going to read Becky Chambers’s new SF novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (September); I loved her Wayfarers series even if I felt that A Long Way… was much better than the other two. ‘In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of galaxy transform themselves.’ I have requested this from NetGalley so hopefully it will come through soon please.
  • I’m also looking forward to Erica Ferencik’s next thriller, Into the Jungle (out since May, but not published in the UK and so expensive on Kindle!); I found her The River at Night evocative and gripping. ‘a young woman leaves behind everything she knows to take on the Bolivian jungle, but her excursion abroad quickly turns into a fight for her life.’

8. What’s your next big priority for your reading? Getting my 20 Books of Summer read before I’m distracted by the new exciting titles above.

9. What’s been your bookish highlight of the year so far? Definitely attending the Wellcome Book Prize ceremony after shadowing the award for the second time, and also the 5×15 Stories event that featured five of the shortlisted writers.

I don’t tend to tag people, but if anyone hasn’t already done a mid-year round-up and fancies this tag, go for it! I’d love to hear others’ responses.

Reading on My Travels, Tokyo 2019: Mini-Reviews

I’m back from my travels! Tokyo (and Kyoto, Nikko and Hakone) were everything I’d wanted them to be:

I’m posting my 20 Books of Summer reviews separately, but here’s some thoughts on the other reading I did while I was in Tokyo:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was totally addictive – I tore through it in a single day, and I have to thank Rachel for persuading me that I’d like it despite my aversion to Old Hollywood settings. The plot draws on some classic chick-lit tropes: junior journalist Monique is stunned when she’s contacted out of the blue by Hollywood star Evelyn Hugo, now in her seventies, and asked to write her biography. Evelyn is famous for having been married seven times – but who was the true love of her life? And what other secrets is she hiding? So far, so predictable. However, Reid’s writing is a notch above similar novels like Harriet Evans’s Not Without You, and the novel is more diverse in terms of both sexuality and race than is usual for this genre; Monique is a biracial black woman, Evelyn is Cuban-American, and there’s also significant LGB representation. In considering the ‘it factor’ projected by true stars, and the emotional dynamics of close-knit groups, Reid picks up on some of the themes she explores further in her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, although I thought that novel’s innovative narrative structure and more restrained plot twists made it superior.

While I hugely enjoyed this novel, I did have some issues. Firstly, it’s cleverly organised into sections each named after one of Evelyn’s husbands, but this does mess with the pacing a little – some important segments of Evelyn’s life feel rushed, especially as she grows older (in contrast, Daisy Jones covers the band’s whole career but the bulk of it focuses on only a few years). Secondly, while it’s more mature in its approach to different kinds of love than the usual romance novel, I felt that the ending, which falls back on a traditional ‘love is more important than ambition’ platitude, was regressive compared to the more satisfying midpoint where Evelyn validates the importance of both love and career (if Reid was trying to say something clever here about how we value love at different points in our lives, she didn’t quite pull it off). Thirdly [highlight for spoilers] while I loved that Evelyn’s major relationship was with another woman, I felt there was a certain reliance on stereotypes; Evelyn is a bisexual, maritally promiscuous Cuban-American, which draws on unfortunate tropes about both bi people and Latin Americans, while her partner, Celia, is a ‘pure’, blonde, gold star lesbian. While there’s a bit of awkward dialogue where Evelyn argues that her multiple marriages have nothing to do with her bisexuality – which, to be fair, they don’t – this feels a bit pasted on to fix this problem, rather than integral to her character. [spoilers end] Nevertheless, I can forgive the novel a great deal for its last line; it’s just brilliant.

I gave up on Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of The Universe about 15% in – I’m theoretically up for the idea of crossing SF and fantasy, but this fell too much on the fantasy side for me, and also did that irritating fantasy thing of setting up some interesting world-building only to abandon it all after the plot kicks off (SF seems to be generally better at integrating its stories more closely with the worlds they’re set in, and makes better use of set-piece/enclosed settings, which is something I can’t get enough of).

Finally, Hanna Jameson’s The Last is a sub-Station Eleven novel about ‘the end of the world’, but then again, most speculative fiction is sub-Station Eleven, and The Last does well at what it sets out to do. Jon, a historian of modern America, is staying in an isolated hotel in Switzerland when the news breaks of nuclear attacks on countries across the world. No-one knows quite what has happened – the situation is realistically confusing, with phone and internet connections breaking down – and Jon and a handful of other people decide it’s safest to stay holed up at the hotel, rather than venture into an uncertain world. Unlike Station Eleven, therefore, The Last picks up directly after the initial catastrophe, and looks at the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a workable society, rather than considering ‘higher level’ goods like art. Nevertheless, it doesn’t neglect more complex human needs. Jon, desperate to be useful in some way, starts recording events, and when a small girl’s body is discovered in the water tank of the hotel, decides that he’s going to find out what happened to her.

The Last is billed as a murder mystery as well as an end-of-the-world thriller, but it really isn’t about murder – Jon’s search for the girl’s killer is more about his own psychological need to support his belief that human life still matters, that it hasn’t become meaningless in the face of such disaster. This thread, therefore, backs up one of The Last’s central themes: that humans have enough good in them to work together for a common goal. Refreshingly, this is not a nihilistic look at human nature, although Jameson portrays violence and desperation at times. Instead, it impresses us with humankind’s ability to strive towards civilisation, despite our imperfections. Jon himself acts as a microcosm here – he has a number of admirable qualities, but he’s also an unreliable narrator who has done things he’s ashamed of and hurt other people. Jameson bravely leaves the ending wide open, and the ‘resolution’ of Jon’s anxieties about the fate of his wife and children, who were in San Francisco at the time of the attacks, is especially haunting.

‘A robot may not cause a human being to come to harm’

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Machines Like Me sees Ian McEwan tackle a genre about which he evidently knows very little – speculative and science fiction – and it has to be admitted that he doesn’t fall completely flat on his face, although the most interesting aspects of this novel have only a tenuous relationship to artificial intelligence. There are actually two speculative conceits at work in Machines Like Me, though only one is obvious from the cover. Firstly, McEwan imagines a world in which robots which fully pass the ‘Turing test’ of sentience have been built, and, bizarrely, have been sold commercially for private use with seemingly few safeguards. These machines certainly don’t obey Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm’) although, interestingly, they may be working with a version of the Second Law (‘A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law’) which would explain the seeming rebelliousness of these creations.

Secondly, this is all taking place in an alternative version of the 1980s, whose political history becomes increasingly satisfying as it moves outwards from its starting-point of Thatcher losing the Falklands War. McEwan enjoys himself sketching deliberate parallels to current politics, using Tony Benn as a Corbyn figure who gives an inspiring speech to huge crowds in Hyde Park then wins a snap election foolishly called by Thatcher as, like May, she struggles to hold on with a tiny majority of MPs (in this alternative reality, she’s also introduced the poll tax early, which has further hollowed out her support). I had fun reading all of this, but frankly, it serves little purpose in the novel itself other than to provide a background for the most plot-significant ripple effect: Alan Turing is still alive and his insights were instrumental in developing the sentient robots (though, like Einstein with the nuclear bomb, he is not happy about this).

Much of the novel, however, is taken up by the simple human story of its two central characters: Charlie, an aimless man in his early thirties who makes ends meet by speculating on the stock markets (a historical piece that remains firmly in place) and Miranda, his lover, a PhD student in her early twenties who is hiding something from him. The plot ostensibly kicks off when Charlie purchases Adam, one of the first robot prototypes, whom he installs in his flat as a kind of friend and servant. However, he’s slow to get to know Adam and to realise his potential. Because of this, Machines Like Me is very sluggish to start; the first half is slow, and says nothing about artificial intelligence that SF readers won’t have encountered before.

McEwan comes more into his own in the second half of the novel, which consists largely of a series of set-pieces, his consistent strength as a novelist. An immensely enjoyable scene when Miranda introduces Adam and Charlie to her father and her father assumes that Charlie is the robot could have stood to be even longer; while a final confrontation with Turing addresses some of the obvious moral issues that are weirdly ignored in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced by the ending: while avoiding spoilers, the way Adam conceives of his ‘self’ didn’t seem to square with the moral burden that Charlie and Miranda end up carrying. This book did not make me cross, which is more than I can say for the last three McEwan novels I read (Saturday, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act); but it’s not really doing anything new. McEwan uses robots here as a device to explore some of his familiar preoccupations – culpability, moral responsibility and moral relativity – but just as the robot seems to have something to say on these issues, he throws it away.

#100DaysofWriting: A Retrospective

 

 

On 29th December last year, I decided to take on the #100daysofwriting challenge. This challenge was originally created by the novelist Jenn Ashworth, who writes about it here, but I found out about it via Emma Darwin’s blog (which, by the way, is an invaluable resource for those who write fiction). I’ve never been won over by NaNoWriMo or similar challenges, which value word count above all else; neither have I found that telling myself I have to write for a certain amount of time every day is very productive for me, although I like Antonia Honeywell’s reformulation of this, which (paraphrased) suggests that you sit in a chair for fifteen minutes every day and try to write, even if that means spending fifteen minutes doing nothing. In short, this is how #100daysofwriting works; you work on your WiP every day for 100 days, but this could mean as little work as opening the relevant document on your computer, or as much work as a blazing five-thousand-word writing streak. Ashworth calls it ‘gentle productivity’, and for me, it strikes a good balance between the undoubtedly sound advice to write every day and the realities of most people’s writing lives.

Since starting #100daysofwriting, I haven’t managed to write every day. I calculate that I wrote on 100/145 days since beginning the challenge, or 69% of all days. This feels both good and bad to me. I’ve had periods of my life where I wrote every day for a year, or two years; on the other hand, I’ve also had periods where I haven’t written anything creative at all for similar amounts of time. Writing on seven out of every ten days is a pretty satisfying achievement from that perspective. I also decided to write about my progress on Twitter, which was not required by the original challenge. I did this for two reasons: while I suspected that daily tweets about my writing progress would irritate or bore most of my followers, I personally would love to see other writers do this. And secondly, I hoped it would help keep me on track by providing an element of public accountability.

So what did I actually get done, and how far did #100daysofwriting help me do it? First things first: I didn’t spend most of my 100 days working on the Antarctic-set novel I mention in the tweet above, and write more about here. In January, I used Tim Clare’s freewriting exercise to work on two novels simultaneously, freewriting on the new novel while I worked on structural edits for my time-travel novel, A Minute’s Grace, which I also discuss here. Freewriting is another brilliant tool for a novelist who’s feeling stuck: it involves writing for fifteen minutes about anything you like, without stopping or editing, although you can also use prompts to get you going (Clare’s free online Couch to 80k Novel-Writing course and his #weeklywritingworkout emails are full of these). However, by early February, something unexpected but fabulous happened; I was offered agent representation for A Minute’s Grace by Kerry Glencorse at Susanna Lea Associates. After two wonderful meetings with Kerry where we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the novel, it was clear that I needed to focus on A Minute’s Grace, rather than the new project, until these edits were done.

Over February and March, I found it much harder to get going again on A Minute’s Grace than I anticipated, and my #100daysofwriting progress was equally patchy. As I wrote on Twitter on February 21st: “Robin McKinley’s Sunshine has this brilliant line where the protagonist is making cinnamon rolls & is trying to ‘persuade stiff, surly, thirty-hour refrigerated dough that it’s time to loosen up’ & that’s EXACTLY what getting back into editing a draft feels like.” I think I was especially struggling with A Minute’s Grace, which had already gone through a number of edits based on professional feedback by that point (I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Orion editor Sam Eades through the Womentoring Project, for example), because my mind and heart had mentally moved on to my Antarctic novel. Freewriting for that novel turned out to be a wonderful way to wake up its cast, but I wished they wouldn’t insist on talking to me when I was trying to focus on something different. I also had some work issues during this period that swallowed up a lot of time and energy.

 

In April and May, I properly got into a serious edit on A Minute’s Grace, helped by a DIY writing retreat near where I grew up in Wiltshire, and ironically enough, this was when #100daysofwriting became less useful. When I’m in the swing of things, I want to write every day, and I’m privileged enough at the moment to have a job that allows me to do that. So I’m finishing out #100daysofwriting with a completely redrafted MS that will be ready to go back to my agent by my (self-imposed) 31st May deadline! That feels like a win. And even though I didn’t write every day, I think the reward of steadily clocking up 100 days helped me get back on the wagon more quickly when I fell off.

Would I recommend #100daysofwriting? I think it depends what you need it for. I’ll definitely be returning to it as I work through the early days of my new novel, provisionally entitled Old Ice, which I find painfully slow; creating something from nothing is so difficult. However, in general, I enjoy editing and find it easy to do once I’ve sorted it out in my head, so I found #100daysofwriting less useful for the later stages of a novel; at that point, I think I need chapter goals, not turning-up goals, as I’m going to turn up anyway. Similarly, the public accountability was more necessary, but more excruciating, when I was working on Old Ice; I’m worried that my more recent tweets have sounded a bit smug, but I know that some people blaze through a first draft and hate editing, so will have the opposite experience! Importantly, this will be different again for non-fiction and academic writers, some of which I know have been trying #100daysofwriting as well.

Are any of you working on your own writing projects at the moment? Do you have any productivity tips? And would you consider trying #100daysofwriting?