The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Nina Allan’s novels, characters are orthogonal to each other, constantly missing out on connection. In 2017’s The Rift, for example, the narrator’s long-lost sister – feared for years to have been murdered as a girl – returns from what she insists has been exile on another planet. Her identity is never clear, least of all to her. In 2014’s The Race, the narrators of its successive parts all seem to be reiterated versions of each other, but in what sequence or by what logic is obscure, perhaps irrelevant.

In this elusive and allusive approach, Allan recalls M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones, writers who were championed during the British Boom of the early 2000s but whose career long pre-dated it. For her part, Allan first appeared towards the end of the Boom, and has since matured into perhaps the most interesting writer it left to us.

The writings that comprise The Silver Wind in large part predate those later novels. Reissued now by Titan Books, it was published in an earlier form by Eibonvale Press in 2011. “These are stories of a time in my life as a writer,” Allan writes in a foreword; the book even includes an “out-take” a story written more than ten years ago, 2008’s “Darkroom”, which in its reliance on dialogue and rather choppy structure demonstrates just how far Allan’s lyrical, resonant and complex writing has come in the intervening years.

None of this is to say that The Silver Wind is juvenilia. Its selection of stories – which, while separate standalone pieces, also, in the manner of the sequential narratives of The Race, collate and collide into a much richer narrative – include arresting and affecting writing, vivid imagery and haunting ideas. For example, the progress through a barren, mutated heath of Martin Newland, the sequence’s protagonist (if not its hero), takes place in a particularly weirded landscape and sticks especially in the memory:

I saw she was disfigured, quite literally de-formed, squeezed apart and then rammed back together again in a careless and hideous arrangement that bore as little resemblance to an ordinary human face as the face of a corpse in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The Silver Wind, p. 199

There is an air of H.G. Wells and Dr Moreau in that passage, and this is no coincidence: The Silver Wind is a novel about a very particular kind of time travel, and Wells is its leitmotif; unusually for Allan, her readers here must have a taste for pastiche. There is some steampunk and some horror, a sprinkling of DH Lawrence and a soupçon of Proust. Stylistically, it is a gumbo of fin de siècle effects.

Narratively, it is a palimpsest. It begins with Owen Andrews, an ambitious watchmaker apprenticing with a legendary horologist in London. Andrews becomes obsessed with building a tourbillon, a form of watch escapement invented by Louis Breguet to reduce the impact of gravity on the mechanism – and which may, on a grander scale, also allow human beings to exist, and move, at the centre of a similar bubble.

Owen is in love with a woman from his village, Dora Newland, who opts instead to marry a local war hero. The next story in the sequence switches perspective, and seemingly reality, to a brother of Dorothy who in the previous story seemed not to exist: Martin, he of the heath-based exploration. From there, each story shifts through various versions of Newland’s life – lives? – until he comes close to understanding the strange effect of time on a person’s experience of reality … and of other people. “[Time] is like water pouring out of a tap […] once it’s been spilled there’s no calling it back again” [p. 168].

Allan’s shifts of reality are indicated obliquely: it is 1920, but Paris is connected to London by rail; it is 1940, but the British government seems to have a rather different make-up. “I felt dazed not so much by the scale of the changes as by their subtlety,” writes one time traveller. The reader’s disorientation is part of the novel’s effect: it isn’t designed quite to align, like a watch mechanism too long tinkered with. 

This sort of effect is extremely difficult to achieve in a manner that satisfies; perhaps The Silver Wind isn’t quite as convincing in achieving this balance as Allan’s later works. But it is nevertheless sinuous, sly and affecting; and in this offers a sure sign that Allan is in the very first rank of contemporary SF.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.

Looking Back: 2010-2020

By Maureen Kincaid Speller.

To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory. 

Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever. 

But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then. 

Continue reading “Looking Back: 2010-2020”

Ten Years, Ten Books

By Paul Kincaid.

What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.

Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.

Continue reading “Ten Years, Ten Books”

Nina’s Best of the Year 2018

Helping to kick off Vector’s 2018 Round-UpNina Allan takes a look back at the year …

As genre imprints become ever more conservatively focused upon tried-and-tested formulas, so the more interesting speculative fiction gets pushed increasingly towards mainstream imprints. 2018 saw no diminution in this trend, and with Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, Lidia Yuknavich’s The Book of Joan, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion, Kate Mascerenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, Patrick Langley’s Arkady and Ling Ma’s Severence to name but a scattering all being published by literary presses, if anything it is the opposite. Some hardy souls do continue to soldier on in the genre heartlands though, and my vote for best science fiction novel of the year would have to go to The Smoke, by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz. I’m a huge Ings fan in any case – both his 2014 Wolves and his 2011 Dead Water were egregious omissions from the Clarke Award shortlist – but The Smoke hits a new high water mark of excellence and should be read by everyone with an interest in what British science fiction is still capable of.

Image result for the smoke ings

Continue reading “Nina’s Best of the Year 2018”

October BSFA London Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison

Title: October BSFA Meeting: Nina Allan interviewed by Niall Harrison
Location: The Cellar Bar, The Argyle Public House, 1 Greville Street (off Leather Lane), London EC1N 8PQ
Description: On Wednesday 24th October 2012,** Nina Allan (author of A Thread of Truth and The Silver Wind) will be interviewed by Niall Harrison (editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons).

ALL WELCOME – FREE ENTRY (Non-members welcome)

The interview will start at 7 pm. We have the room from 6pm (and if early, fans are in the ground floor bar from 5ish).

There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Map is here. Nearest Tube: Chancery Lane (Central Line).

Please note that this is now the new permanent venue of BSFA London Meetings.

28th NovemberPaul Cornell, interviewed by Roz Kaveney
(There is no BSFA Meeting in December).
23rd January 2013** – TBC

** Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays. The meeting will be on the fourth, not the last, Wednesday of the month.
Start Time: 19:00
Date: 2012-10-24
End Time: 21:00

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.


Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.

Four Stories by Nina Allan

Early on in “Wilkolak”, the story’s protagonist, a London-based Polish teenager known as Kip, has spotted and photographed a man who he thinks bears a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal. But:

Kip didn’t want to think about the murder. It was the photograph of the murderer that interested him, some loser with a plastic carrier bag crossing the street. The image might seem ordinary but Kip knew it wasn’t, that the very act of framing the man in his viewfinder and then choosing to release the shutter made the picture significant. The main point of a photograph was to invite you to look, to concentrate on the world around you a little harder.

“Wilkolak” (which can be found in Crimewave 11) is a horror story with only the faintest hint of a suggestion of a trace of anything not scrupulously mimetic, yet this is a passage that can be taken as emblematic of Nina Allan’s approach to the fantastic in her short fiction. Situations seem ordinary, but are not, and their lack of ordinariness is signalled primarily by small details or moments. In “Wilkolak”, for all that the criminal’s victim is one Rebecca Riding, last seen wearing a red coat, and for all that the predatory nature of the man in the photograph reminds Kip of the Polish folk tale from which the title is taken, there’s no suggestion that the game of is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty is going to resolve into a literal werewolf tale. Rather, if the fantastic lurks anywhere in this story, it lurks in Kip’s interactions with his girlfriend, Sonia, who asks for a print of the photo only to later reveal that it reminds her of a man she saw in a dream, “some kind of monster … He could kill people, just by looking at them”; and who, after a perfect afternoon in a park, insists out of nowhere that she wants Kip “to know that whatever happened today was real … That all of this really happened.” Such moments may seem to be sidebars to the main action, which circles around Kip’s growing fascination with the man, but the psychic dread they evoke is the story’s true motor.

Kip’s attraction to photography is typical, though: a lot of Allan’s protagonists either are or know people of a creative bent. In other stories she’s published this year we find a blocked writer of fiction, a somewhat desperate journalist, a documentary film-maker, and an acquaintance of a painter. The last of these, in “The Upstairs Window” (Interzone 230), provides the opportunity for another seemingly self-reflective passage. His paintings appear to be an abstract mass of colours, but in fact are composed of miniature paintings of disparate objects, whose connection is not at all clear to Allan’s narrator, Ivan:

Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention.

Ivan may not have time for this, but we should; just because Allan’s stories are filled with the specific does not mean — in the best cases — that they are overdetermined. To go back to the earlier quote, framing does not determine meaning; framing is an invitation to look at the world around you.

And even in her overtly fantastic stories, Allan’s settings are recognisably derived from the world around her: that is, contemporary London. Often, the fantastic has been normalised; the first indication that the setting of “The Upstairs Window” is in fact not contemporary London, at least not as we know it, is a passing reference to what seems to have been a theocratic revolution. Gradually a clearer picture emerges, of a Britain in which the “Bermondsey Statutes” have instituted severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for particularly upsetting artists. It’s these statutes that Ivan’s artist friend, Niko, has fallen foul of, and which mean he needs to flee the country. But that’s not what the story is about, it’s just what happens, and only part of what happens, at that. None of the threads are fully resolved; as Lois Tilton observes, it makes for an ending that forces us to choose, to find the overt meaning that the collage of glimpses seems to deny.

There’s another departure in Allan’s other Interzone tale of the year, the more science-fictionally sophisticated “Flying in the Face of God” (IZ227). This might have been the story of a bold American astronaut, Rachel Alvin, who’s volunteered for the deep-space adaptations known as the Kushnev process. Like Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners, or the Spacers of Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”, once she’s gone through the process, Rachel will be removed from the normal run of humanity. The initial physiological changes involve thickened skin, paled eyes, reduced need for food and water, and by the time of the voyage the fliers will be able to exist in a “a kind of para-existence.” Allan’s focus, however, is not on the changes experienced by the woman travelling to the stars, but on the continuity experienced by a woman who remains behind. “Flying” is actually the story of the London-based film-maker, Anita Schleif, who has already had one flier in her life — her mother, now dead — and who in getting to know Rachel has had the misfortune to fall in unrequited love with another.

It’s a story with a complex relationship with more conventional sf, fully engaged with the troubled myths of the frontier that space exploration stories always draw on, yet more about a life touched by sf, struggling to integrate an sfnal event into the texture of the everyday, than about a life being shaped by sf, or using sf to shape the world. This is, of course, how it is and will be for most of us, most of the time, and I think the great achievement of the story is in the way it establishes a firm connection to the reader (at least this English reader) while acknowledging the frustrating partiality of any human connection — and without selling the strangeness of the Kushnev process short, to the point of actually allowing and succeeding in a moment of honest-to-god sense of wonder, when Anita visits Rachel before her launch: “She’s really going up, thought Anita. For the first time the sight of her friend brought not sorrow or anger, but awe.”

It remains an awe rooted in the specific — in the sense that Anita has finally seen Rachel’s new reality — but “Flying in the Face of God” is rare among Allan’s stories for representing a connection between humans so generously. “The Phoney War”, perhaps the best story Allan has published in 2010, portrays a more fraught situation, at all levels. In the foreground of the story is a journalist, Nicky, setting out on a journey to find out what’s happened to an old friend, across a landscape that if we didn’t read the story in Allen Ashley’s anthology Catastrophia we might at first think is just the greyest parts of Britain on an off-day. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s an ongoing and pervasive deterioration. There are problems with the power supply. There are no broadsheets on sale, only slimmed-down tabloids. Petrol stations are empty. As much as anything, Nicky keeps working to try to impose a frame on the uncertainty, to force herself to pay attention to the world.

She still wrote for the Clapham Gazette even though her writing no longer paid her enough to make ends meet. She wrote her regular column in the form of a diary and it satisfied the same purposes: the need to externalise thought, the need to make sense of her life and above all the need to keep a record of the things that happened.

As Nicky travels, and the story flashes between past and present, we learn that the cause of the chaos is the possibility of first contact. News of impending alien arrival has caused widespread panic, and the government appears to have taken the opportunity to impose a more autocratic regime; the extent to which the former is exaggerated as cover for the latter is, to those on the ground, unclear. But this remains background — a more insistent background than the worlds of “Flying in the Face of God” and “The Upstairs Window”, but nevertheless — with Nicky’s foremost concern her attempt to find her friend. When she succeeds, however, on the cold coast at Dungeness, she finds that personal truth remains just as elusive.

In her conversations with her friend, and with the “foreign-looking” man she turns out to be living with, Nicky is almost, but not quite, allowed to reach a moment of understanding; indeed, another way of looking at Allan’s stories is that they almost all, in different ways, address moments of hesitation, both for their characters and for their readers. They get away with it, I think, because of the normalised, even mundane nature of Allan’s settings; but “The Upstairs Window” leaves threads dangling; “The Phoney War” refuses any neat emotional closure; “Wilkolak” ends literally in mid-scene, much like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” leaving it to the reader to resolve the story. Only “Flying in the Face of God”, of the stories I’ve been discussing here, moves past the moment of hesitation to suggest that something like connection is possible — and even there, it may be a self-deluding, one-sided connection.

Nina Allan’s had a busy year, and a very strong one, yet I feel she’s still one of the better-kept secrets of British sf. What remains to be seen, I suppose, is how well she can sustain her approach — or how she evolves it — at greater length. Apparently she’s been putting the finishing touches to a novel; I’d like to read it.

BSFA Survey Response: Nina Allan

Survey coverNina Allan’s speculative short stories have been published in Interzone and The Third Alternative, and collected in A Thread of Truth (2007). Her story “Bird Songs at Eventide” was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2006. Allan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

If you were to ask me what I am I’d say a writer, and if you were to ask me what I write I’d say speculative fiction. I grew up with sf – as a child and young adult I was a massive fan of writers like Wells and Wyndham and then later Keith Roberts and JG Ballard and the Strugatsky brothers. I loved the dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, Zamyatin and Kafka. All the stories I tried to write in my teens involved aliens or monsters or penal colonies in harsh environments. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to write stories that did not include some element of the mystical or fantastic. I read widely in what you might call the mainstream, but mainstream literature seemed to me then – and still does – to be missing some vital element, some extra layer, to be concerned more with the surface of the world rather than its murky interior.

I often feel my stories are not organized enough to count as ‘proper’ sf – so if I am a science fiction writer I am a very wayward one. On the whole I am wary of genre labelling, because too often people either have preconceived ideas about what sf is or what it should be, which can lead to them either dismissing your work out of hand or else having false expectations of it. I understand that genre labelling can be useful and is often necessary, as a means for facilitating discussion, and as a guide for readers and publishers. I just don’t like it when these boundaries become too rigid.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

All my work involves some element of the fantastic. Sometimes that element is very slight, and is more a shift of emphasis, a tampering with reality rather than any easily definable objective change in it. I like the term hyper-reality, because this seems to suggest a deepening rather than a broadening of the fantastic element, that it has to do with the particular visions and insights of the narrator and/or character.

I have also produced work where the external characteristics of our own world remain largely intact, but where there has been some political, social or environmental change that either affects the way people carry on with their lives in a practical sense, or else affects their belief systems, their sense of the possible. I suppose the shorthand for that is that I write near-future sf.

Not that I have anything against monsters. I would like to write a great big gothic monster novel one day!

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

Because I love it, and because it is an inalienable part of me and my world view. I can’t ever imagine not writing it, watching it, reading it, thinking about it. It has always struck me as peculiar and a little arrogant that so many ‘mainstreamers’ – both writers and readers – dismiss sf as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible.’ Today’s sf has always been tomorrow’s reality. If you were to take a Victorian scientist along to PC World he’d think he’d travelled forward a thousand years instead of a mere hundred or so. We have only been here a short time and have barely scratched the surface of our universe. It seems to me that sf has more to say about the world we live in than any other kind of literature, both in terms of what goes on inside our heads and what might go on out among the stars. sf is not just the true literature of the twentieth century but of every century.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

It makes sense for me to group these two questions together. The answer is a big resounding yes, although I suppose it might be more accurate to say that my work is distinctively English rather than distinctively British as such. I didn’t realise how important England – and my own Englishness – was to me until I started writing seriously, and then it became obvious almost at once that I am a distinctively English writer. I think the thing people have most often commented on in my work is its English ambience, that ‘it’s so English,’ or ‘it reminds me of how England was when I was growing up.’ Even my future Englands seem to remind people of their childhood! This is something I am truly proud of, that my work has this kind of resonance with my readers.

I have a very intense sense of recall – I prefer to call it recall rather than nostalgia, because I’m not saying ‘this was better’ but ‘this is how I remember it – and I think it is this fondness and concern for detail that gives my work this quintessentially English flavour. I am English, I grew up in England, it’s where I live now, so it’s not surprising if the things I dwell on and choose to describe are influenced by that. I would even go further in stating that I believe that one of my main ‘jobs’ as a writer is to try and capture the image and essence of England as I have known it and to preserve that the best I can. The world I grew up in is changing – you could almost say it is disappearing – and my work at least in part is gradually becoming an elegy for a lost kingdom.

A sense of place is fundamental to my work. I am proud to be a Londoner. It’s where I was born, and I have recently returned to it as a smelly foot returns to a well-worn shoe. The city is a daily inspiration to me, especially the less-known and under-appreciated corners of South East London, where I live. The coastal towns of South East England, which formed the backdrop to much of my childhood, also feature frequently in my stories. I love discovering new parts of England – I feel it would be quite possible to spend the whole of one’s life in this country and never get to the end of it – and England’s natural history, its invertebrate life in particular, has always been an obsessive interest of mine.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Wales, and feel almost ready to attempt my first Welsh story. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in Scotland – I hope that this lack will be remedied in the years to come.

So yes, British, and proud – though having said all that the story I am currently writing is set mostly in Germany…..

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In terms of abstracts, I would say that my country of origin, the vital role that memory has always served in my life, and the huge love of the written word – understanding a thing or a feeling not just in physical or visual terms but in terms of written letters – have been my main influences. I understood from about the age of four that a thing – a butterfly, a spider, a mallard duck – could somehow be ‘kept’ if you wrote about it. Once I discovered that, writing became for me the most natural and essential of human activities.

Becoming acquainted with other European languages and literatures has been of incalculable value to me as a writer. Whereas you might argue that many English novelists have tended to become fascinated with manners, class and social mores, in European fiction the emphasis has always been on ideas. Discussions of philosophy, religion and politics have always been central to European literature, together with often more advanced notions of sexuality and the role of art. sf and fantasy have always been welcomed into the European mainstream with open arms, whereas in England they have all too often been condemned as the black sheep of the family. It was a Russian writer – Vladimir Nabokov – who first made me want to be a writer, and a German novel – Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus – that first revealed to me just how far the boundaries of speculative fiction could be stretched. All European writers are resistance fighters at heart, and do much to remind us that a little more intellectual anarchy in the UK would not go amiss.

In terms of specific writers, I would prefer to say inspirations rather than influences because I am not a person or a writer who is easily influenced. The works of M.John Harrison and Christopher Priest are a constant and ongoing inspiration. MJH’s A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium makes me weak with envy every time I read it, while Priest’s novel The Affirmation is probably the most important work of speculative fiction to be written in the last fifty years. Priest’s work has redefined what sf can do and what it can be, and the poetic integrity and technical virtuosity of his novels makes them some of the finest examples of contemporary English literature as a whole. I keep coming back to Ballard, his solitary doctor-antiheroes, his visionary landscapes, his cruel poetry, his sparse yet still scintillating use of language. For me, novels like The Drought and The Crystal World contain both everything that first drew me to sf and everything that keeps me reading and writing it. The single novel that has probably influenced me most in terms of its metaphors and symbols (and here I think I probably do mean influenced) is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, an influence extrapolated and enlarged upon in the radiant, visionary cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

On my bedside table at the moment: Bruno Schulz, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Bowles. The list goes on.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, I shall answer these two questions together. Short answer is that it is too early in my career to tell! I’ve not sold to America yet, and I am guessing that the defining Englishness of my writing might have something to do with this. I did have an interesting experience recently when I noticed that an American reader of my story “Microcosmos” (Interzone 222) thought it was set in America. I didn’t mind this at all – in fact I enjoyed it, because it made me see the story in a new way. I’m very much of the opinion that once a story is written the writer should give it its freedom. It’s up to the readers then to see what they make of it.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

Ideally it should make them ask questions. It should make them re-examine and re-imagine their view of the world, of themselves, of particular historical or political events. It should thrill and excite. On occasion it should terrify. (Go and read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road if you don’t believe me.) Personally the thing that would please me most would be for a story of mine to inspire a reader to write a story of his own.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

It doesn’t have a weakness. Weaknesses may be present in particular works or the works of particular writers, but the genre itself must be just about the most exciting and inclusive and flexible on the planet. It used to be a commonly held belief that sf novels were strong on ideas but weak on character, but I would argue that a novel that doesn’t pay proper attention to characterisation or language or style is simply a bad novel – it is not made bad by being sf. If I had any criticism at all to make it would be that there are some writers who don’t read widely enough outside the genre. As sf writers we should be aiming for the highest standards of literary excellence – and this means drawing our inspiration from diverse sources.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Without question the broadening of the genre. We have thrown away the rule book, thank goodness, and a sf novel can now just as easily be set in a mental asylum or a court house as on board a spaceship. You can begin your story twenty thousand years into the future, or right now. There are always going to be ‘sf purists’ who will insist that Russell Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo isn’t really fantasy, just as there will always be mainstream bigots who believe that anything that trespasses on the quotidian is somehow a degradation of literary standards. But on the whole such limited insight is a thing of the past.

On the whole I believe that the ‘incursion’ of broadly mainstream writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt and David Mitchell into the field of sf and fantasy has to be a good thing. Not only does it precipitate the blurring of genre boundaries – always a good thing, in my book – but it also promotes discussion and argument and brings some welcome public attention to the subject of sf. While mainstream writers may not be in the forefront of innovation when it comes to science fictional ideas their presence in the field can help us avoid complacency, and so raise our game.