Hugo Award Winners

Here they are, then:

NOVEL: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins; Fourth Estate)

I called it! I totally called it. Is this the end of the squandered promise of sf? Well, no; but probably not insignificant, either.

NOVELLA: “All Seated on the Ground”, Connie Willis (Asimov’s Dec 2007; Subterranean Press)

NOVELETTE: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, Ted Chiang (F&SF Sep 2007)

SHORT STORY: “Tideline”, Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s Jun 2007)

Novella and novelette are as expected, and I’m pleased about the Chiang and less pleased about the Willis. Bear beating Michael Swanwick and Mike Resnick is a bit of a surprise, but not an unwelcome one.

RELATED BOOK: Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Jeff Prucher (Oxford University Press)

Well, I thought this was a two-horse race between Barry Malzberg and Shaun Tan. Apparently not! I thought Brave New Words was an admirable project, though, so this is ok with me.

DRAMATIC PRESENTATION: LONG FORM: Stardust (Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Paramount Pictures)

Interesting that it managed to beat out Heroes S1; I look forward to the voting stats on this one.

DRAMATIC PRESENTATION: SHORT FORM: Doctor Who: “Blink” (Written by Stephen Moffat. Directed by Hettie Macdonald. BBC)

Hardly an undeserving winner, although I was rooting for “Human Nature”.

EDITOR, SHORT FORM: Gordon Van Gelder

EDITOR, LONG FORM: David G. Hartwell

I hope Long Form isn’t just going to oscillate between Hartwell and PNH.

PROFESSIONAL ARTIST: Stephan Martiniere

SEMIPROZINE: Locus, Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong & Liza Groen Trombi

FANZINE: File 770, Mike Glyer

FAN WRITER: John Scalzi

I called this, too, and am not unhappy about it. Although hopefully he’s not going to go on to win for the next twenty years straight …

FAN ARTIST: Brad Foster

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo): Mary Robinette Kowal

Wow. Another surprise — not just that Scott Lynch didn’t win, but that the only short fiction writer on the ballot did — and, again, not an unwelcome one.

So: a decent set of winners for the most part. Cheryl Morgan has a few notes about finishing positions; interesting to see that Scalzi came second in Best Novel (apparently, by nine votes).

Further reactions here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

The Link King

A few pre-Hugo links (and others)…

So long, semiprozines

No, we haven’t had the actual Hugo Awards yet , but SF Awards Watch reports on some changes to the award categories which were passed at the WSFS Business Meeting yesterday – notably, the proposal that the semiprozine category be eliminated, and that a category of Best Graphic Story be added, which I believe will cover online publications as well as paper ones.

I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Best Graphic Story category, as competing with the biographies and critical works which get nominated in Best Related Book always seemed a strange fit, although books which are art collections and not stories will still go there. A category to recognise some of the excellent SF&F graphic novels seems overdue, and hopefully the Montreal shortlist will be filled with some of these. (Sadly, there will be no eligible volumes of Scott Pilgrim for me to nominate.)

Removing the semiprozine category I am less in favour of. It’s true that in recent years (UK Worldcons excepted), it has been dominated by Locus, but there are an increasing number of online venues for short fiction, critical articles, and reviews which fit into this category and don’t fit anywhere else, and under the current proposed change they won’t be eligible as fanzines either. I don’t know the proposers of this change, so I’m not sure what it was about the category they felt was terminally broken and I’ll be interested to hear what happened in the business meeting – it seems strange to me that you remove a category entirely, and then make everything eligible for the now-defunct category specifically ineligible for the one award they might now conceivably fit.

World Fantasy Award Nominees

Over at the Inferior 4+1, Lucius Shepard posts the World Fantasy Award Nominees:

Best Novel
Territory, Emma Bull [Tor]
Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay [Viking Canada/Penguin Roc]
Fangland, John Marks [Penguin Press]
Gospel of the Knife, Will Shetterly [Tor]
The Servants, Michael Marshall Smith [Earthling Publications]

I have read, er, none of these (and in fact it looks like a slightly odd list to me, given the available options), so I will report Nic‘s reactions:

On Ysabel: yay!
On Gospel of the Knife: *flat stare*

Best Novella:
The Mermaids, Robert Edric [PS Publishing]
Illyria, Elizabeth Hand [PS Publishing]
“The Master Miller’s Tale”, Ian R. MacLeod [F&SF May 2007]
“Cold Snap”, Kim Newman [The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, MonkeyBrain Books]
“Stars Seen through Stone”, Lucius Shepard [F&SF July 2007]

Huzzah, to recognition for “The Master Miller’s Tale”. Must get around to reading Illyria, too.

Best Short Fiction
“The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics”, Daniel Abraham [Logorrhea, Bantam Spectra]
“Singing of Mount Abora”, Theodora Goss [Logorrhea, Bantam Spectra]
“The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change”, Kij Johnson [The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, Viking]
“Damned if you Don’t”, Robert Shearman” [Tiny Deaths, Comma Press]
“The Church on the Island”, Simon Kurt Unsworth [At Ease with the Dead, Ash-Tree Press]

Those two Logorrhea stories sure are popular. Not without reason, mind.

Best Anthology:
Five Strokes to Midnight, Gary A. Braunbeck & Hank Schwaeble, Eds. [Haunted Pelican Press]
Wizards: Magical Tales From The Masters of Modern Fantasy, Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois, Eds. [Berkley]
Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Ellen Datlow, Editor [Tor]
The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Eds.[Viking]
Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories John Klima, Editor [Bantam Spectra]

I did not like Inferno (at some length, in NYRSF, if you’re interested). I did like Logorrhea (although it is by no means a pure fantasy collection), and I would like to read The Coyote Road.

Best Collection:
Plots and Misadventures, Stephen Gallagher [Subterranean Press]
Portable Childhoods, Ellen Klages [Tachyon Publications]
The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club Kim Newman [MonkeyBrain Books]
Hart & Boot & Other Stories, Tim Pratt [Night Shade Books]
Tiny Deaths, Robert Shearman [Comma Press]
Dagger Key and Other Stories Lucius Shepard [PS Publishing]

The Klages is good, if a little lightweight; the Shepard is good Shepard; I haven’t read any of the others.

Best Artist:
Ruan Jia
Mikko Kinnunen
Stephan Martiniere
Edward Miller
John Picacio

Special Award—Professional:
Allison Baker and Chris Roberson for MonkeyBrain Books
Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman for Borderlands Books
Peter Crowther for PS Publishing
Gordon Van Gelder for F&SF
Jeremy Lassen and Jason Williams for Night Shade Books
Shawna McCarthy for Realms of Fantasy

Special Award—Non-professional:
Midori Snyder and Terri Windling for Endicott Studios Website
G. S. Evans and Alice Whittenburg for Cafe Irreal
Stephen Jones, Editor for Travellers in Darkness: The Souvenir Book of the World Horror Convention 2007
John Klima for Electric Velocipede
Rosalie Parker and Raymond Russell for Tartarus Press

Not a lot to say about these categories, except congratulations to the nominees. And the winners of the Life Achievement Award are: Leo & Diane Dillon, and Patricia McKillip.

Predicting the Unpredictable: The 2008 Hugo Awards

It’s that Worldcon time of year again, and while I won’t be in Denver and I didn’t vote on them that isn’t going to stop me giving my opinions and speculating wildly on who might get a Hugo this Saturday night. Feel free to question my judgement and attempts to second-guess the voters in the comments; if you are equipped with Livejournal, you can vote in this Hugo poll as well.

Best Novel

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  • Brasyl by Ian McDonald
  • Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Last Colony by John Scalzi
  • Halting State by Charles Stross

I hear that Rollback may be one of the best things that Sawyer has ever done I’m not convinced it can actually be good. Based on Old Man’s War, Scalzi certainly has the potential to write great books, but I haven’t read The Last Colony. My vote would go to Brasyl, probably the finest SF book I read last year, and a worthy successor to River of Gods, with the very different but still often great Yiddish Policemen’s Union in second place.

Best Novella

  • “The Fountain of Age” by Nancy Kress
  • “Recovering Apollo 8” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • “Stars Seen Through Stone” by Lucius Shepard
  • “All Seated on the Ground” by Connie Willis
  • “Memorare” by Gene Wolfe

I confess I haven’t read any of these due to lack of time, and it seems unlikely that I will manage to do so before Saturday evening. My wild stab in the dark for this category is Connie Willis, based on her previous Hugo wins.

Best Novelette

  • “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang
  • “Dark Integers” by Greg Egan
  • “Glory” by Greg Egan
  • “Finisterra” by David Moles

I like Greg Egan when he manages to write stories which combine hard science with emotional resonance (see “The Cutie” and ‘Reasons to be Cheeful” for examples), but both of these stories are too filled with science I don’t fully understand and characters I don’t really care about for me to like them. “The Cambist and Lord Iron” and “Finisterra” are both good stories, and only lose out because even a Ted Chiang story which is not his best work is still a very good story. So “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” gets my vote, and I think it’s going to win.

Best Short Story

  • “Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter
  • “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear
  • “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken MacLeod
  • “Distant Replay” by Mike Resnick
  • “A Small Room in Koboldtown” by Michael Swanwick

See previously; I would go for “Tideline”, but I think it’s going to go to Swanwick.

Best Related Book

  • The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Glyer
  • Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium by Barry Malzberg
  • Emshwiller: Infinity x Two by Luis Ortiz, introduction by Carol Emshwiller, forward by Alex Eisenstein
  • Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Even if I had read all these books, I have no idea how I would make a comparison between a book of critical essays, a biography, a dictionary, and a piece of sequential art – if the proposal to creat a sequential art category passes the business meeting, that would take away part of the problem. The only one I have read is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is absolutely gorgeous and wonderful and should be read by everyone, and I think it would be a worthy winner. My actual prediction is the Malzberg, based on it winning the Locus Award.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Enchanted
  • The Golden Compass
  • Heroes, Season 1
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • Stardust

I’m torn between Heroes and Harry Potter on this one (Stardust was good but not that good, The Golden Compass was not very good). Order of the Phoenix is a bloated book made into a surprisingly good film, but I don’t know if I’m giving it extra points for being a much better film than I thought it was possible to make out of that book. Heroes season 1 I don’t mind being in long form, but I would have much less trouble voting for some of the specific really good episodes than trying to judge the season as a whole with all the ups and downsagainst a two hour film. In the end, I think Heroes might edge it for me. Predicting what will actually win is difficult, as I don’t know if the unexpected presence of Heroes in the category will affect the voting. I think Harry Potter might win it, and I won’t be too upset with that.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  • Battlestar Galactica “Razor”
  • Doctor Who “Blink”
  • Doctor Who “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood”
  • Star Trek New Voyages “World Enough and Time”
  • Torchwood “Captain Jack Harkness”

Two-horse race, I suspect for the voters as well as for me, between the two finest episodes new Doctor Who has produced. “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” wins for me because David Tennant does a stellar job, but in the end I think this might be a third win for Moffatt, unless the inexplicable Torchwood love is more widespread among Hugo voters than I think.

Best Semiprozine

  • Ansible, edited by David Langford
  • Helix, edited by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Interzone, edited by Andy Cox
  • Locus, edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, and Liza Groen Trombi
  • The New York Review of Science Fiction, edited by Kathryn Cramer, Kristine Dikeman, David Hartwell, and Kevin J. Maroney

Ansible remains one of the best and funniest newsletters I’ve seen in any field, but this is the Locus category and I see no reason why this will change this year. I would prefer it if Helix didn’t win, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some recognition for NYRSF.

Best Fanzine

  • Argentus, edited by Steven H Silver
  • Challenger, edited by Guy Lillian III
  • Drink Tank, edited by Chris Garcia
  • File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
  • Plokta, edited by Alison Scott, Steve Davies, and Mike Scott

I like Plokta, particularly the Facebook-parody cover of their latest issue , but this category is defined for me by the lack of several excellent fanzines, like Banana Wings, Prolapse, and Chunga, which all deserve to be on the ballot. I predict a victory for File 770, because I have a completely unfounded feeling it might be a US ‘zine winning this year and File 770 has past form.

Best Fan Writer

  • Chris Garcia
  • David Langford
  • Cheryl Morgan
  • John Scalzi
  • Steven H Silver

Sure, Dave Langford has won this award many times, but I still think there are very few fan writers to match him. I predict this is the year that John Scalzi swoops it, and I won’t be too disappointed with that even though he wouldn’t be my first choice.

Faber Finds … SF?

Faber’s new print-on-demand imprint has reached the reader suggestion stage:

For the launch list Faber has canvassed its editors and authors for their suggestions. As we continue to grow the list, we’ll be asking both writers and readers to nominate forgotten favourites. So we’d like now to hear from you, the reader – books can be fiction, memoir, poetry, autobiography, criticism, history, anthologies, science fiction, thrillers, and books for children. Let us know by emailing lostandfound@faber.co.uk.

I have two requests in mind already: The Sea and Summer, George Turner‘s 1988 Clarke Award-winning novel (if only so I can return the copy that I’ve borrowed to its rightful owner); and the out-of-print parts of James Blish’s After Such Knowledge trilogy, Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgement (because Joanna Russ’s reviews made them sound fascinating). But what else? Note that they don’t insist you limit yourself to books originally published by Faber — although the Turner and Blish books, I believe, were.

Recently Read 2

Everything is Sinister coverThe existence of a book like Everything is Sinister doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Reality TV has by now become an easy fictive shorthand for a certain level of cultural obnoxiousness, and as such a gift for satirists (or would-be satirists), so a story set in a near future which emphasizes the vacuousness or ugliness of the celebrity culture that reality shows encourage hardly feels like speculation at all. (Indeed, there’s at least one other novel published in the UK this year – Glynn Maxwell’s The Girl Who Was Going to Die – that seems to take a similar approach, though I haven’t read it; and Amelie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, translated last year, featured a reality show cheerfully called Concentration, about, yes, a labour camp.) But even beyond this, in attitude and setting Everything is Sinister appears to have similarities with a clutch of other recent novels; I’m thinking of books like Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men or Will Ashon’s Clear Water, which like Everything is Sinister are set in darkened versions of our present, in which one factor or another that shapes our lives has been intensified until it threatens to self-destruct. In de Abaitua’s novel it’s modern office life; in Ashon’s, consumerism; here, as noted, it’s the power of celebrity. The narrator, Ed Raynes, is the showbiz correspondent of a (fictional) tabloid called The Voice of the People, and as the novel opens he’s covering the current series of a show called Lockdown, and struggling with his concerns about the likely winner, Colin Curtis, who has an unsavoury past that hasn’t been publicised. Raynes feels increasingly alienated from the world around him, and when he’s beaten up on his way home one evening, he cracks and retreats into his flat to observe what he thinks (and what a very odd neighbour encourages him to think) is the ugly collapse of modern society taking place all around him.

It’s quite satisfying, then, to be able to report that Everything is Sinister largely works; Lockdown is by no means the only sfnal touch in the piece, and the narrative is well controlled, clocking in at a little under two hundred pages. In a number of ways, certainly, it treads ground covered by earlier genre authors. Mostly the resonances are the ones you’d expect — there’s more than a dash of Bug Jack Barron, a hint of Time out of Joint-flavour Dick, and in its portrayal of a complete moral collapse, just a touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in which it’s set is that it keeps everything Brunner got right. So: it’s a future in which overcrowding (if not actual overpopulation) is (at least Ed Raynes believes) literally driving people mad, with riots that spring up for no reason; casual drug use is rife, including a sedative called Derekon and symph, a drug that makes you believe you’re remembering the future; and the world is information-saturated. What’s most striking is the way in which this is represented: as part of his retreat, Raynes immerses himself in the online and televisual worlds, transcribed by Llwellyn in sections that read like nothing so much as The Happening World segments of Stand on Zanzibar. (With a bit more editorializing than Brunner let himself indulge in; although on the other hand, Brunner didn’t have the opportunity to include a hilariously accurate future broadcast of Newsnight Review.) Whether or not any of this is deliberate I won’t pretend to guess — both books have epigraphs that reference Marshall McLuhan, but really all I know about Llwellyn’s genre credentials is that his previous novel was a Torchwood tie-in, which frankly you could take as evidence either way – but it feels like the work of a writer who know what he’s doing.

Llwellyn’s created future is nothing like as panoramic or as dense as Brunner’s, of course, and there is something a little quaint about his inventions: the way The Voice of the People and Lockdown are so patently stand-ins modelled on The Sun (down to featuring “page four girls”, and despite the fact that The Sun is itself mentioned in the novel) and Big Brother; or in the way he gives us an extract from “Megapedia”, or talks about the “Jupiter Music Prize”; or in the sorts of brandnames he comes up with (to my ear, “C-Fish”, the novel’s supercharged Blackberry-equivalent, just doesn’t work). But accepting this backdrop, in many cases, Llewellyn’s eye is good, in particular his detail of the banality of modern media life. A paroled contestant from Lockdown goes to a club where, “instead of dancing, she strikes dance-like poses” for a photographer, “a breathing waxwork begging to be immortalised” (16); press junkets and exclusive parties seem as “ephemeral as snowflakes” (51); when hiding out in his flat, he watches the streams of commuters with his neighbours, “as content as men watching a sunset” (62). His eye for the specifics of place isn’t bad, either, which is just as well since he spends quite a lot of time describing things; but even the obligatory Canary-Wharf-is-sfnal moments feel relatively fresh.

But I think what ultimately makes Everything is Sinister worth reading is velocity. It doesn’t waste any of its pages; the narrative is divided into succinct chunks that come (like blog posts) with handy subject lines and timestamps, and the further into obsessive despair that Ed Raynes slips, the more biliously claustrophobic is the cumulative effect. “Something is wrong with people” is a repeated refrain in the novel’s second half, uttered with increasing conviction in the face of a parade of black-humoured plot twists, as Raynes appears to disappear down the rabbit-hole of his psyche good and proper. Ultimately we come to understand just how complete Raynes’ self-imposed lockdown is, how completely impotent are his attempts to rage against a culture thirsty for ever less inhibited forms of “reality”, and that there really is no possibility of parole; for us as well as him.


After Dark coverA little over half-way through Everything is Sinister, Ed Raynes is enticed into leaving his flat by the intoxicating violence of a nearby riot. When he reaches the scene, he finds himself — for once — in front of a camera, rather than behind, and observes that there is “something other-worldly about existing, however briefly, on the flip side of a television screen” (107). It’s a psychological observation that becomes literally true in Haruki Murakmi’s most recent novel to be translated into English, After Dark (2004/2007), where it serves as the central lynchpin of weirdness in a more cerebral exploration of urban alienation. It’s also just one iteration of what is probably After Dark‘s USP, namely its concern with perspective. Unlike in Llwellyn’s book, we get little or no description of place beyond some initial scene-setting, a diorama of hyperconnectedness that’s enough to call to mind all the traditionally cyberpunky images of urban Japan. Where this story is set isn’t half so important as who is telling it and who it’s about.

The narrator turns out to be an anonymous, first-person-plural omniscient narrator who directs our attention to a series of figures within the landscape. Depending on how you identify the narrator – at times it seems like it could be a supernatural entity, at others a manifestation of urban consciousness (if you squint, you can almost read it as an urban AI), and at still others simply a metafictional reflection of the reader – the book can be read in different ways. But whichever way you take it, the narrator frames everything we know about the characters in a much more explicit way than most novels, gently guiding us to look first one way and then another. The character it spends most time watching is Mari, a college freshman we first see sitting alone in a Denny’s, just before midnight, reading a book. She’s joined fairly quickly by Takahashi, a guy who sort-of knows her (he knows, or would like to get to know, Mari’s sister), and they have the first of what is one of many slightly rambling conversations that punctuate the story. These conversations veer unpredictably between the banal and callow and the incisive and moving — Mari and Takahashi talk about, among other things, what to eat, why siblings are different, and how to live a good life. The story spiderwebs out along connections from this initial meeting to take in the staff at a nearby love hotel, an overworked salaryman, and Mari’s sister Eri, who turns out to be the girl who disappears through the TV — an eerie sequence, made more unnerving by the narrator’s insistence that they can’t intervene: “We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travellers” (27).

If humanity in Everything is Sinister is being driven wild by over-saturation and over-connection, in After Dark something like the opposite is true: we are never more separated than when we are crowded together. The nocturnal setting — the entire novel takes place in one night, with, as in Llwellyn’s book, each short chapter bearing its own timestamp — is offered as a liminal zone, a place where different worlds can meet and start to mix in a way they wouldn’t do during the day. The city is presented more than once as something living, as a “single collective entity” (3), whose circulatory system transports data, consumables and – tellingly – contradictions. It’s at night time, apparently, when these contradictions start to surface, when they can be challenged and renewed, and when the barriers between worlds — not just between Mari and Takahashi, who come from different peer groups, but between the criminal and law-abiding worlds, and even the fantastic and the real – are most frail. And yet all of these worlds are part of a “single collective entity” (3). One of the locations to which the story returns several times is, as mentioned, a love hotel, with the rather revealing name of Alphaville, explicitly after the film: “in Alphaville”, Mari explains, “you’re not allowed to have deep feelings. So there’s nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony.” When Mari confirms that there is sex in the film’s Alphaville, her interlocutor muses, “Sex that doesn’t need love or irony […] Alphaville may be the perfect name for a love ho” (60). Or, put another way, Alphaville is a place of no contradictions, an abstracted image of a city rather than the real thing.

After Dark is never less than engaging, is often charming, and a couple of times unsettling; but it has a problem, which is that the central point of view is as limiting as it is freeing. A narrator who belongs to all and none of the book’s worlds can aspire to the pretense of impartiality, can (for example) chill us with its voyeuristic depiction of Eri’s somnambulistic journey into TV-land; but for all that it holds the promise of revealing the real urban landscape, it ultimately cannot convey the experience of it. Like Ed Raynes, Murakami’s narrator watches and catalogues, but After Dark‘s final contradiction is that we never enter Mari’s world in the way that we enter Ed’s: it’s on the wrong side of the screen.


The Story of Forgetting coverOne of the two narrators of The Story of Forgetting is a stranger in the modern world, too, but that’s because it’s literally grown up around him. Abel is an old man, living alone in a small house in suburban Texas, surrounded by modern developments that have gradually encroached on the open spaces he used to know, and by which he seems stubbornly indifferent. (He has a horse; when he rides it to the shops we’re told “he rejected the industrial revolution as though it were one man’s opinion”, 74). As in the above two books, Abel’s story is one of observation, but his focus is himself and a recollection of his life and the losses he has endured. “I have no choice but to remember everything,” he thinks. “So much has changed” (68) And so much has been lost: twin brother Paul is gone, as is Paul’s wife, Mae (one of a number of women in the book who get a slightly raw deal, although there’s a lot of misery to go around in general); as is the daughter that might have been Abel’s, as the result of an affair, or may have been Paul’s. No surprise that Abel’s stories are marked by self-loathing, loneliness and self-pity; and yet they draw us in. Abel is a hard man to like, but easy to listen to.

Seth Waller also knows that remembering isn’t easy, and also finds himself compelled to remember anyway, if for a different reason: “only because I’ve sworn myself to full and total honesty,” he tells us, “will I remember it now on purpose” (21). “It”, at this point, is a specific incident in the gradual erosion of his mother by Alzheimer’s disease: how he discovered his mother after a fall. This and other memories, such as the night she wandered off in search of home, carrying a suitcase full of rotting meat, go part way to explaining why Seth – in high school at the time – decides that the solution is to devote himself to learning as much as he can about his mother’s condition, and the brain in general. The more Seth learns about the particular (fictional) variant of Alzheimer’s afflicting his mother – it is early-onset; it is heritable – the more he wants to learn. He gets his hands on a copy of a research database, which describes the distribution of the EOA-23 gene responsible for the disease across North America. He starts visiting whichever sufferers he can reach, in an investigation whose depiction of sadness is sometimes unbearably poignant, and sometimes uncomfortably pornographic. It’s not until very near the end of the book that Seth learns what is obvious to us, watching him, from early on: that he’s trying to learn how to understand his own life, as much as the disease that’s blighted it.

Braided with these two strands are two others that explore the same concerns in ways that tend to be just a little two obvious. One is a genetic history, following the propagation of the gene for that variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s from its creation in the DNA of one Alban Mabblethorpe, lord of Iddywahl. English names are not Block’s strong suit, but he can write about the mechanisms of molecular biology with not a little poetry — replication gone wrong causes the polynucleotides “to fray and recoil like hair over a flame” (55); the beginning of Memory, the start of biochemical life, is “a simple repetition of a few simple units, like a bar of a song stuck in one’s head” (240) – and, perhaps because they achieve a bit more distance from their subject, these sections contain some of the most engaging in the book, ironic in tone but precise in detail. And then there are the stories of Isidora, stories told to both Abel and Seth as children, of a land without memory, “where every need is met and sadness is forgotten” (13). “There are places where you can cross”, the novel’s opening states, but it’s a false promise: Isidora remains a story throughout the novel, serving as a commentary on the power and seduction of fantasy.

Which is where the novel both succeeds and fails. What there is to admire in The Story of Forgetting is in the specifics: the voices of Abel and Seth, the way science and sorrow are both transmuted to story, the particular scenes that live in the memory. The tales of Isidora are perhaps the purest expression of this virtue. For all their brevity, they can be startlingly eloquent, and the complexity with which they recapitulate the world grows throughout the novel. I can very nearly believe in Isidora as a necessary consolation: like the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, it is a story told to make the story of forgetting bearable to watch. But in the end, it also exemplifies the contradiction at the novel’s core, which makes it a hard book to love: because while sentiment demands justice, intellect refuses it.


Rumble Strip coverIf The Story of Forgetting is about making something ugly bearable through beauty, Woodrow Phoenix’s latest graphic novel, for all that it’s never explicit, is about revealing ugliness. Rumble Strip is a polemic against irresponsible car use, not on environmental grounds but on the simple and arguably more immediate big-lump-of-metal-moving-scarily-fast grounds of safety. The opening pages imagine a world in which every building had a grand piano hanging outside it, suspended by a couple of strings, as a way of freshening up our perception of the risks of driving; and the rest of the book is similarly blunt. Drawn in stark black/white/grey, it is extremely well-paced, measuring the rise and rise of a pulse of anger, and it understands the seductiveness of cars in greater depth than simply the way they represent a lifestyle choice. I think Phoenix goes too far in his discussion of how people rate “best car” exclusively by speed — I just don’t think that’s true, even among hard-core car nerds — but the basic point stands, and there’s no doubt he makes his case for an imbalance in modern society, that we cede too much to the car, with power and skill. The book’s ultimate triumph is its artwork: it never shows a real person, or a car. Nearly every page unfolds as if showing the view from behind the windscreen in an ostensible driver’s paradise, the truly open and empty road. But it becomes an eerie and irrational world: a segment that emphasizes the commanding nature of the lines in an empty car park is particularly potent.

Stormlinker