Jeff Noon and the really weird

Jeff Noon, British cult novelist, playwright and one of a small but very recognisable group of contemporary writers of weird, or new weird fiction, was in the Forbidden Planet London megastore to sign The Body Library.

I’d brought along a copy, pre-ordered, which I was three-fifths through and as reviews of The Body Library go, can’t better this by Chris Limb. What I got from Jeff Noon’s readings and the Q&A afterwards was an insight into writing weird fiction.

Amongst the tendrils of the morphing, shifting, insatiable growth of genre, the keepers of the slottish mystery of shelving weird or new weird within increasingly narrow interstices in “Science Fiction & Fantasy” generally come down on the nearest match.

Weird fiction comes down to something which is unlikely to qualify as a shelving label:

“What the fuck is happening here?”

This satisfying response in the reader is true of all genre writing, but as the cry of someone shifting on the tectonic plates of reality, doesn’t usually occur to readers in one single moment. In weird or new weird fiction, it does.

Jeff Noon recounted for our appreciation his publisher’s introduction to The Body Library:

“What the fuck …”

and the forthcoming third book in the Nyquist trilogy:

“What the fucking fuck?”

Now Nyquist gets beaten up a lot, but a reader of weird fiction basically signs up for the equivalent mental experience of being thrown out of the window. By the time you’ve got yourself sort of the right way up, you’re not sure which reality is the right one.

In the proliferating worlds of genre fiction the reader is picking how they want their reality, however they rate it, to interface with the writer’s fictional reality and basically, the committed reader of weird fiction is up for having their head messed with. Respect. I did ask Jeff Noon, after expressing gratitude for messing with my head since reading Vurt 12 years’ ago, if writing a story of disturbing noir dream logic based on story itself had messed with his own head.

“Do I look like it’s messed with me?”


No, not at all. Jeff Noon, a sorted Mancunian is undoubtedly “Manchester’s delirious prophet,” to quote Kieron Gillen but is not remotely delirious himself. He is comfortable with long experience in taking us to the weird and scary places only a handful of writers achieve.

It’s all about where and how the What the eff? moment kicks in for the reader. What struck me twelve years’ ago as a writer, was Noon’s traditional, linear narrative, given the avant garde, organic cyberpunk content of Vurt. Some of the linguistic stylishness has been replaced by something that should come with a printed warning on the cover, a set up to What the eff? of disquieting straightforwardness.

Like A Man of ShadowsThe Body Library is an addictive, immersive noir thriller. Until the What the eff? moment. Then the straightforward fictional narrative becomes a disturbing reminder of how far down the rabbit hole we are, the reassuring fictional reality an increasingly flimsy construct within which we experience the very weird.

In weird fiction, the reader comes to a point on the curve of the interface of fictional with the everyday. Fresh from Follycon, Jeff Noon showed us where weird fiction lives on a base state of what we loosely call reality. As I don’t have a video, I’ll say it’s about hip height, or just below. Worldbuilding means most of the mainstream SFF panels Jeff Noon was on were working within fully constructed worlds on an epic scale. The point at which Noonlaw kicks in, to the delirious joy of his readers, is from a familiar reality and then whatthefuckisthis

Will Smith says to K, about becoming a Man in Black:

“Is it worth it?”

“Yes,” says K, then, over his shoulder as he walks away:

“If you’re strong enough.”

Weird fiction in a nutshell.


Writing in a time of heinous fuckery®


“Heinous fuckery” is not my description, I say with great regret. It belongs to @ChuckWendig, who is wondering how to keep writing while being in the middle of it. He’s not the only one. Kameron Hurley says here

Ongoing national horrors can’t be unplugged, but we go on

They are saying, from inside Trump’s America, that there is no end in sight, this is how it is, and how do you write when you have to respond to what’s happening around you? If we’re writers, we respond in a particular way, but we’ve got empathy hardwired as part of the package. Readers escape into the worlds writers create, the bugger is that the writers can’t.

We’ll come to John Scalzi later, because @scalzi has got the answer. It involves leopards, hope you’re not frightened by leopards. If you’ve not been scared shitless by an orange pre-sentient smear with his little fingers on the button, a spotty predator with massively powerful haunches and little, neat ears, isn’t going to bother you so much.

What do we do about this?

joanneharris_wthf 14.16.35

Classic British understatement which covers the reality of carrying on writing in the middle of the fuckery. To start with, we used our words to fight the horrors, words passionate with feeling, honed with sarcasm, every bloody trick in the book, designed to take down a vulgar, ignorant, racist online. There was a peevish reaction amongst the online fanbases unused to finding politics clogging up the source of their stories and storytellers. The authors sighed, interspersed the political with pictures of cats, sunsets, heirloom apples (Thanks, Chuck), even tried getting a book or two out there.

But the thing is, this is the thing writers do.

Writers have always been the ones weaving patterns out of everyday life with words, whether dealing directly with the facts as journalists, or a metaphorical version as writers of fiction. Getting better at the words is time, hard work, getting less shit at it. But writers, despite looking like everyone else, have an alien digestive process when it comes to reality. Most human beings respond to what is going on outside their own heads by (a) fighting it (b) achieving an amicable relationship with all but the really crappy parts over time and (c) pretending it isn’t there. Writers are not only on this headmessing spectrum but hardwired to empathise with the world around them, like the lettering in seaside rock. A writer is no more able to cut off an empathy with the world around us, than seaside rock can deny the existence of Scarborough.

A writer digests the raw stuff of life and produces story, which is life rewoven to show the warp, the weft, the pattern, the meaning, if we’re getting up ourselves. Human beings need to know what it’s all about, which explains why, in every cave, there was a storyteller, usually accompanied by someone waving a club around to convey the importance of narrative in case they were thinking of dragging her out to hunt mammoths. The storytellers were too busy making up stories about hunting to go out and bring the mammoths down, but the clan needed both. Still needs both action and the words that explain the action.

You ask, what about the leopards? Be calm, we’ve come to the leopards.

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 14.52.20

The storytellers have always been hardwired for empathy, and retained a sort of sanity by a digestive process that finds the pattern in the best and worst of circumstances and turns it into something that explains it. The old, primitive threats posed by leopards find new horrors which, forgive me, I will not list because there are too many and we have the means, with words, in the right order, to fight.

I think we need to keep our words, our best words, for our writing, for telling the stories that make sense of the heinous fuckery. Creativity is a storyteller, not the hunter of mammoths; when the primitive instinct to fight kicks in, on Twitter or any else, I think we have to go back to a unique way of responding and focus on that.

And now, I’ll probably return to Twitter and join a rant about Trump.

I’m saying what we should do, not what I necessarily do.




Is Anybody Listening?

cant stop the signal_David_Krumholtz_001

“You can’t stop the signal, Mal,” says Mr Universe in Serenity. At the London Premiere we were six deep, waiting for Joss who wore the expression of someone convinced everyone else was more important. I’d just picked up a poster from the printers in a long cardboard box, pushed it over the heads of people in front, Sign the box. Joss, sign the box … Which he did. Originally I said “a good man,” an adjective I apply to people I approve of. I have to qualify this and say creatively I admire Joss Whedon and he is a man. He does not always behave admirably in his private life, and indeed has been a bit of a shit to his ex-wife. But admiring our creative heroes for their creativity while knowing about shitty behaviour is for another blog.

Back on topic, You can’t stop the signal. But an oblong cardboard box signed by Joss Whedon has not been my passport to a screenwriting career and I was reminded of this when Tweeting about Trump the other day. According to my Twitter account analytics, informing the universe that a barely sentient, racist narcissist presently known as “President” described the White House as “a dump” provoked a disproportionate number of impressions, overtaken by an image of a billboard last weekend. You can’t stop the signal, but just five seconds on social media is enough to make you realize the response to the signal depends on people. And here, we must leave it.

oh fuck what now: 01


The first in a regular series dealing with the current “heinous fuckery” (copyright @ChuckWendig).

Ground rules: I’ll try and present solutions. If you tell me to shut the fuck up, well, my gaff, my rules. I reserve the right to be as offensive as my late grasp of inventively offensive language allows.

I can’t be offensive enough about Trump to make a difference, so I have to be accurate and use Germany’s name for him. For a nation that lives with the permanent, now-empty memorials of the old horrors of nazism and the holocaust, their name “horror clown” puts Trump in perspective. Trump is simple, he’s the huckster selling snake oil off the back of a wagon. The problem is not Trump’s moral idiocy, but the fact so many people bought the snake oil, not only those desperate enough to believe the lies, but the racist bigotry of true idiocy. The real fuckery is that he’s made good on a promise. He promised to drain the swamp. He has. The slimy, slithering dregs of malpractising veniality that have come to light have immediately been given a place in Trump’s administration.

The solution is not to waste time on the slimy horrors on Trump’s administration. Trump is impeachable, he’s been impeachable ever since he signed his trademark scrawl-wall of a signature just over three weeks’ ago.

Trump is one man, but Trump-ism is everywhere that a voiceless underclass latches onto at whatever the snake oil sellers are using to sell their particular brand of horrible bigotry and isolationism. Here in the UK it’s Brexit. It is compounded by a lack of effective alternatives, and a deep mistrust, or over-reliance, on political competence. Hillary’s political competence rules her out for many, something I found difficult to understand until my inner competence junkie greeted Theresa May as our hero. I mistook the workings of a relentlessly political animal for genuine social concern. In the middle of the endlessly catalyzing effect of Trump on other political leaders, it took the choice of appeasement, faced with moral idiocy, to dislodge Theresa from my need for a responsible adult. Which is understandable, given the heinous fuckery we’re all living through.

What it also brought up was our need for heroes to lead us. Sometimes just somebody to do all that hard, joined-up thinking, but sometimes, as happened with Corbyn’s meteoric rise in popularity, a desire for a lama, a principled guru to follow. We’ve learned to check credentials and in this case, lack of workable competence, but the desire for principled political leaders was genuine.


Jo Cox was a hero, is a hero, will always be a hero. Extremists don’t target the flawed amongst us, they target the ones with the unique values of bravery and compassion. Because the qualities are contained in a human frame, and the twisted logic of fear believes the destruction of the human being means the destruction of their qualities, Jo Cox was the target. Around her, politics as a game of spunky biscuit with the lives of ordinary people, reached the point where it was no longer a game. For one year, Jo Cox showed what a true politician could be, and no-one came near her for real humanitarian concern for the lot of people like us.

Variously, our political leaders walked away because the game wasn’t worth the trouble (Cameron), thought their particular brand of self-serving deviousness could come out from the shadows (Gove and no, still looking and acting like a nasty little git), realised the fun had stopped (Johnson). Farage is still peddling his poisonous brand of fascist snake oil at every opportunity but mainly, it was as if some unexpected intuition showed the political leaders of the UK what can happen to the real thing, and they weren’t the real thing.

So many heroes left us last year, it seemed as if some sort of human cosmic crap rushed in to fill the gap. I think we have to be our own heroes. We have to support what’s right, keep dealing with the shit when we’ve got our lives to lead. We still own the streets, we can still say what we need to say and let others say the complete opposite without imploding.

Who will save us from this heinous fuckery?

Us’ll save us.

Give yourself time off, keep to one clear target at a time. Don’t build any walls. Don’t let anyone else rope you into building walls. Hero-ing is hard work.

The llama in the road



lama  བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning guru, teacher, mentor

Jeremy Corbyn’s indisputably  large following among the party membership regard him as a sincere, principled lama who has spent years in the political wilderness for his sincerity. This, I agree with, particularly in contrast with the Bullingdon boys in their smooth body suits – @caitlinmoran‘s “ham robots” was obvious.

A significant proportion of Labour MPs, on the other hand, see Corbyn as a llama in the road. This domesticated pack animal native to the thin air of endless opposition and high principles has sat down in the middle of the road and isn’t moving.


The urge to turn this into a story, something like Borgen, where principles and commitment break the mould and everything gets SORTED is strong, I’m a writer after all. But being a responsible adult I have to wait like the rest of us, for a messy clash of idealism and pragmatic political realism to work out.

Yup. Messy. Stories are much neater.

The Naked Author … is not


I was wavering on whether Kazuo Ishiguro appeared as a Naked Author or not in The Buried Giant until Damien Walter came up with The 8 Tribes of SciFi (now The Nine Tribes of SciFi). I am an admirer of Kazuo Ishiguro for his shocking ability to walk the tightrope between an appearance of polite self-regulation and a lot of deep shit going on underneath. Out of respect for his own dislike of the word, and for the country which was home for the first two years of my life, I’m not going to use the term “inscrutable”. Clive James says anyone who spends a couple of days in Japan is better placed to understand how it works than someone who never sets foot there and on that basis I would say “inscrutable” is a word designed to cover a simple cultural confusion. Japanese authors can seem remarkably self-effacing, but only when seen from the viewpoint of several hundred years of Romantic self-expression. Japanese authors are expressing their unique view of the world but don’t necessarily see themselves as the centre of that world. I suspect you have to be at least partly Japanese to understand how this is possible.

As I’m working on the premise that a naked author is one with the writing chops to resolve any story in any format, who has left something unresolved, it’s important to knock “inscrutable” off its perch. Ishiguro has said in several interviews that The Buried Giant, written after a ten-year gap, was the book he wanted to write, giving himself free rein in terms of format, background and story. More Tolkein than Game of Thrones, more modern than mythic and nothing like the rest of Ishiguro’s output, it is a classic case of an author sitting opposite his publisher with a determined expression and enough hard-won clout to write what he wants to write. Not self-effacing, and far from inscrutable.

So Ishiguro is not attempting to hide behind mythic obscurity, a bespectacled modern-day Gawain peering out from behind a concealing fable. There is nothing remotely Hobbity about The Buried Giant and its motives are clear, dealing with the need of the old couple to recover lost memories and the wider effect of memory on war, revenge and love. Personally, I welcome any genre mash-up that includes dragons, but this is a dragon serving the needs of its masters and the miasma of forgetfulness at the heart of the story and weary of the captivity.

The Buried Giant didn’t qualify for my criteria of an author who has deliberately left something unresolved because it is unresolvable in the writer’s own mind. At this point, I passed it through the The 8(9) Tribes of SciFi, courtesy @damiengwalter and it got snagged  here:

The LitFic Tourists
It’s a rare trick for a writer to be both widely read and critically acclaimed. When literary writers wander into scifi, the attempt to be both often ends up being neither. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a huge book that sold for a hefty advance and has been duly marketed to hell and back by its publisher. But alongside its two equally huge sequels forms a vampire adventure story that suffers from being neither very scary nor particularly exciting. On the flip side the short stories of Kelly Link, which recently earned their author a place as a Pulitzer prize finalist, are sci-fi down to their genes but you could read them all and never know it. The crossover of literary and genre scifi produces some startlingly original books, but it also leads to some of the most ill conceived and downright dull chunks of wordage out there.

Ishiguro has given indisputable proof of his ability to write crossover literary and genre scifi with Never Let Me Go. He’s not a tourist, and The Buried Giant is far from ill conceived and downright dull. It probably wasn’t the best choice for a genre straddle, having said that. The Buried Giant won’t lose Ishiguro his place as an author of literary fiction or the success of Never Let Me Go, but The Buried Giant is like watching a dancer end with a spectacular example of the splits. Sometimes you think …

Yes, cool. But did the act need it?

The Naked Author 1: This Census Taker


Francis Spufford’s review of This Census Taker in The Guardian, heads the “stoic bleakness” in the novel with a choice of author photograph designed to bring out the same qualities. The familiar image of China Miéville: tats, muscles, shorn head, undisputed winner of any imaginary fight with pretty well any living male author of his size and weight you could name, is spot on. Having encountered him, on the other side of a book signing table, courteously and briefly explaining the meaning of “perichoresis,” the image remains, translated permanently into a muscular imagination of mindnumbing flexibility that nobody with any sense would think of arguing with.

What struck me about This Census Taker, however, was a glimpse of the naked author. I’m interested in the idea of the naked author; this for me is where something appears in the story that remains unresolved. Why China Miéville and why this novella? Because Miéville’s ability to hew out new genres by virtue of an imagination you could break rocks with proves the unresolved feeling at the core of This Census Taker is nothing to do with an inability to tell the story.

That is in not in any way to suggest the imagination isn’t still on rock-breaking form. It is another extraordinary experience of a world both familiar and then – not. Headlong as the boy running down the hill screaming in the opening paragraph, the tense shifts, POV breaks, swoops, returns, little animals dislodged from their genres scuttle ahead. The ride has started. Now keep your hands inside the car!

” I shouted, ‘My mother killed my father!’ “

This, said at the end of the opening section, is not fixed or certain; it soon becomes apparent that this is the complete opposite to what he thinks has happened, and we have no way of knowing, by the end of the book, whether that has happened or not.

Miéville’s fiction, any reading of his sparse non-fiction political standpoints confirms, has no more authorial authority than a ride operator sending you, strapped into immobility, on your way. Miéville does not establish his authority by being Miéville but by his skill as an author. Which is why I think we see a glimpse of the naked author in a story which leaves uncertainty at its heart. After all, we are not in the hands of the ‘unreliable narrator’ of less ambitious storytellers as the reveal on the boy emerges early. He is unreliable by virtue of being a boy, and the unsettling shifts in his age, while including the adult, never give us the simple resolution of adulthood or a simple rite-of-passage tale. He achieves authority and adulthood but we have no more sense of what the authority is based on than we know what his father’s skilled craftsmanship of keys to unlock impossible secrets, consists of. The craftmanship of Miéville’s world-building in this novel, in primitive retreat from some apocalyptic state to urban fable, the glimpses of the fully-fledged worlds of his other novels, are like one of the keys. We are handed a key crafted with enormous ingenuity, but it doesn’t unlock the story.

The only reason, for me, why a writer of Miéville’s imaginative muscle would not give us the key to this world, is that we are not supposed to have it. This Census Taker is crafted with great skill to leave us, regular readers and committed apprentices of that skill alike, with something beyond solving. The confusion of the boy, left by one parent in a way that throws doubt on the other is left vividly unresolved. He finds stability as a census-taker;  but whether or not he is this census taker, the authority of a “census taker” in this post-apocalyptic world is unclear.

Like the hole in the hill that receives the dismembered animal bodies of his father’s unexplained episodes of violence, the mystery of the mother’s disappearance is never fully explained. Like the boy, the story skirts around the contents of the pit, revealing possibilities of the unspeakable without answers. The craftmanship in leaving this uncertainty at the heart of This Census Taker makes this, for me, one of the most vivid examples of the naked author.

The next example appears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.