Speech for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 18 July 2018

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 27 July 2017.

We come to honour the modern Prometheans.

We come to honour those who steal fire.

We come to honour those chained to rocks.

We come to honour those whose livers are plucked out by eagles.

Well, maybe not the last, but do keep drinking.

Two hundred years ago, the teenaged daughter of two radicals, who had run away to Europe, published a novel in which a scientist brings dead matter to life and then abandons his offspring. We can read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in many ways, but in part it’s about technology and reproduction, about parenting and responsibility and about what it is to be human.

Those are some good themes.

Our authors are still exploring them, two centuries on. There were four debut sf novels on the shortlist this year and the other two authors are new to the Clarke Award.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time is set in a near future where people can have babies by donation or redesign their babies or even have be both parents. In a series of vignettes, intersecting in subtle ways, Charnock explores some of the social implications and some of the emotions of children and parents. It’s a book that demands rereading, our judges finding it subtle and “a quiet, unshowy book” that lingers for a long time.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is set after apocalyptic events, with the few survivors scavenging in the bad lands in fear of the dreadful Company, in fear of the awful Magician and in fear of the bearful Mord, a huge, aggressive, flying bear. One survivor is Rachel, living in an uneasy relationship with a scavenger named Wick, who find a strange object she takes at first to be a plant, but turns out to be an animal and indeed sentient. They call it – him – Borne and Rachel raises him like a child, until Borne starts having ideas of his own. Our judges called it “absolutely bonkers” with “batshit crazy technology” – but, obviously, batshit in a good way.

Children, daughters, with ideas of their own are at the heart of Jennie Melamed’s debut Gather the Daughters, a postapocalyptic island community where daughters are very definitely property of their fathers and are abused in all kinds of ways. Whilst the society’s set up brings its own crises, the thrust of the novel is the young women’s attempt to assert agency. Our judges said this is “An important book which places the experiences of the abused and their testimony at the centre” and it offers us “Unspoken stories of the unheard”. It’s clearly in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that seems more relevant today than thirty years ago.

Revolution features in Omar El Akkad’s American War, another debut, where we follow the actions of a child and then woman Sarat in the Second American Civil War after the death of her father. She is radicalized by a father figure and we see how she is driven to terrible acts. It is a tale of American politics told from the outside, which our judges felt “Turns sf’s power structures upside down” and marks “The end of the American century.”

Jaroslav Kalfař’s debut Spaceman of Bohemia straddles a historic revolution from the perspective of a lone astronaut on a Czech space mission to investigate a strange cloud which may threaten Earth. Not only do we get the story of his travels – and his encounter with an alien spider-like creature – but we delve into his past and the actions of his father and grandfather before the Velvet Revolution. The sins of the fathers may yet be visited on the sons. It is Swiftian and Kafka-esque, and Hasek-esque and our judges loved its “Sf exploration of recent Czech political history”

C. Robert Cargill has written in other modes and genres, but Sea of Rust is his first sf novel. It’s told from the point of a sentient robot, after an AI created apocalypse in the wake of a movement for robot rights. Humans have refused to acknowledge their artificial offspring and are usurped by their creation. Robots get finally to be human, with all their resourceful, wisdom, skills and their foibles, jealousies, politics and aggression. It has element of westerns – The Dirty Dozen, perhaps, with raids and sawbones doctors and ambushes and shootouts. Our judges found it “an unexpected pleasure” and “An effortless read”, and it, like Borne, is a whole lot of fun.

I think our judges had fun whittling down the submissions to six, and I thank them for their good humour and patience in the heart breaking process of agreeing which of the half dozen were dispensable and which we wished to choose as the latest winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The other five books will take on lives of their own and be read and I think we have a snapshot of the modern Prometheus and what science fiction can do in these dark and uncertain times. Words and stories remain important.

But one of the books had to win, as the eagles circled, eyeing our livers.

It’s time to discover the latest Titan.

Shelf Indulgence

The Bookshop (Isabel Coixet, 2017)

Sometimes the gun over the fireplace in Act One is a paraffin heater.

This film works really hard not to be liked. It’s set in and around a bookshop in a small Suffolk village set up by widowed Emily Mortimer, and everybody loves a bookshop. Well, not everybody, because Patricia Clarkson, channelling Glen Close as Cruella de Vil, would rather have an arts centre, for reasons which need not detain us and clearly don’t detain the film. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy, who increasingly leads me to poor viewing choices, is a misanthropic widower who likes books and likes Emily Mortimer. In particular, in turns out he likes Ray Bradbury.

What’s not to like?

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Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
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Uncle Tom Cobblers

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

Remember, if there’s a gun over the fireplace in Act One, then…

Early on, we learn that little Charlie Graham needs an epi, and despite the fact that she could die at any point from anaphylactic shock, this always gets left behind. So, obviously, when her mother forces Charlie’s brother Peter to drag her to a party, she’ll make a beeline for the walnut cake. And things then take a turn for the worse, as stoned Peter tries to get her to casualty.

Ouch.

I’d very nearly given this a miss, but somehow I’d been convinced that this was Quality Horror, presumably on the grounds that Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne wouldn’t appear in something which was pants. How wrong whoever that was was.

Annie is an artist who makes miniatures of her life, including her family and her Nasty Dead Mother. For example, she makes a model of Peter failing to get Charlie to hospital.

Ouch.

The family is haunted, perhaps by guilt, perhaps by something supernatural, and there is a room in their huge house that used to be her mother’s and they now keep it locked, because…

One day she attends a bereavement session, but Annie lies about going to it, claiming she was at the cinema. Hubby, whose job is not entirely clear but involves reading large manuscripts and sitting at a big desk, has clearly never asked her about what she has seen. Personally, I think a bereavement session is more fun than movies. This allows her to bump into Joan, similarly bereaved, and get to know her. Joan introduces her to the wonderful world of seances.

This cannot end well.

It doesn’t.

Before long, we’re deep in Rosemary’s Baby territory and the only question is who is in on the conspiracy and who is disposable. This film could have been made in 1968 and frankly Lucifer hasn’t caught up with Second Wave feminism yet. The One must be prepared for. And so we get some risible low key special effects and some embarrassing nudity and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

No wonder Gabriel Byrne looks so miserable throughout.

There’s some neat uncanny stuff, and Annie reminds me of Frances Glessner Lee’s crime scene models, but the ironies of Annie creating fake world whilst herself being a puppet never really pays off. The director likes tracking shots, but even these seem a little haphazard.

The Real Laura Barton

Rona Munro, My Name is Laura Barton (Directed by Richard Eyre, Br/dge Theatre)

There was some anxiety from several reviewers that Nightfall didn’t sufficiently fill the thrust stage of The Bridge Theatre. So they follow it up with a one-person monologue, performed by Laura Linney, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Laura Barton. To make that feat more impressive, it is performed without interval, with a set that is little more than a hospital bed, a cabinet and a chair, plus a projection screen.

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“You made me come”

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J. A. Bayona, 2018)

The cool thing about the Alien films — before they became pants — was each one was a different flavour of slasher movie: haunted house, Vietnam, prison. The Jurassic Park films just gave us variants on Westworld: genetically engineered dinosaurs get out of control at a theme park, again. I think in one they got to attack San Diego, which makes a difference from New York.

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What Does Red Mean to You?

John Logan, Red (Directed by Michael Grandage, Wyndham’s Theatre)

01FE5BEC-F32C-4B7F-8FED-92B5EFB5FB42There’s a room in Tate Modern that has to me the sanctity of a church. It is devoted to a group of multiforms by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I feel them embracing me, a sublime experience I can never quite express. They were intended for a restaurant, the Four Seasons, in the Seagram Building, designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe and postmodernist Philip Johnson. I have noticed red paintings in Pizza Expresses … but these? Amazing.

They never went on display.

He withdrew the paintings, returned the cheque and, eventually, sent some of them to the Tate, where they arrived on the day of his suicide.

Red, originated with Alfred Molina at the Donmar Warehouse and now revived with him reprising his role of Rothko, is contemporaneous with that commission. He has employed Ken (Alfred Enoch) as an assistant, to prepare canvases, mix paint and buy cigarettes, coffee and Chinese takeout. Ken is an aspiring artist, but Rothko is clear he doesn’t want to mentor him and he doesn’t want to teach him. At the same time, he opines upon the generation of Cubists he feels his generation rendered obsolete and condemns the upcoming Pop Artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns for being insufficiently serious. And he attacks his peers, especially the late Jackson Pollock, dealers, critics, buyers and gallery visitors.

He talks at great length about the ideas in The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche, and the relationship between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Ken keeps trying to fit Rothko into this scheme, but Rothko resists his model, forever demanding his opinion whilst claiming he has no authority to speak to the master. Inevitably they discuss the significance of red and the many differing shades, and how it is surrounded by the tragedy of black.
What does black mean to you?

The one thing they don’t discuss is that Ken is black.

Is this a hole in the play or a work of genius?

Originally, the part was played by Eddie Redmayne, but presumably the script remains the same. There were African American artists, including Norman Lewis in the abstract expressionists, but in the late 1950s would it be unmentioned? Rothko is Jewish, and this is presumably something that subjects him to some discrimination, originally from Russia, where he saw (or remembers seeing) much violence.

At one point, Ken notes that Rothko has no idea where Ken lives, if he’s married or queer, anything beyond his origin in Iowa. I’m not even sure that the name Ken is used in the play. Is the silence over his ethnicity another aspect of Rothko’s focus on the purity of art? At the same time, we don’t know that Rothko is married — he was and had had a previous wife, but both go unmentioned. Art is all. We don’t, of course, know that he will kill himself, although he seems to have a drink problem. As the play proceeds, the works in progress become progressively darker, more black. Tragedy is coming.

The play lasts ninety minutes, without interval, as long as a single act of Angels in America and The Inheritance trapping us with the characters. The switch between canvases is choreographed, as Rothko and Ken raise, lower, remove, replace and raise them. We see the two prepare a canvas — stretching, stapling and then priming with a red the colour of dried blood. As the two paint, they reach a synchronised rhythm, Ken becoming like Rothko, despite the latter’s insistence he is not there to teach him. The music is mostly classical, aside from moments of jazz and a segue into minimalism, symptoms of the dominants of music to come.

Molina is fascinating as Rothko, a heavy presence, with no interest in demanding our sympathy for his ogreness and yet making us care the moment he falls apart. Enoch is alternately vulnerable and cocky and growing in stature. I haven’t seen his work in the Harry Potter films, and I didn’t realise he is William Russell’s son — yes, Ian Chesterton from Doctor Who, another protege paired with an ogre out of time. Remarkably he can hold his own with an actor of much greater experience and a lengthy script.

The two hugged at the end, in a performance that was interrupted by a fire alarm about ten minutes in. They took the decision, rightly, to start again, and I have to admire that they were able to regain their equilibrium, even if the safety curtain could only be inched up.