The Best Albums of 2017

The Hermes Experiment at Union Chapel

Ok. Let’s start with a summary. 2017 has seen a lot of incredible new music across all genres.  I’ll say upfront picking a Top any number was a struggle. 10? That leaves out so many I want to list. 20? Maybe….

So i made a longlist of 60+ …but don’t worry they didn’t all make the cut. Some were just EPs or single tracks, despite their ear catching greatness these are relegated to despatches.  

Very early in the year a one off track called ‘Semitones’ by Lucinda Chua set a benchmark for the year.  It set me on a spree of listening to great, often instrumental, semi electronic pieces full of the ineffable.  

Of course i was already a massive fan of two very distinctive sax players who put out EPs this year Shabaka Hutchings space funk jazz as part of The Comet Is Coming and the gorgeous West Coast melodic explorations of Kamasi Washington.  

Shabaka Hutchings with The Comet Is Coming at Blue Dot

More folky but soaringly psychedelic too are Trembling Bells who pumped great life into ‘The Auld Triangle’ of all things.

Then just last week Mica Levi put out Delete Beach on Demdike Stare’s label.  A disturbing, dystopian SF piece with more ideas in a track than most artists’ careers.  Finally Maalie by Orcadian musician Erland Cooper is a soaring taste of hopefully a full album next year.

So those were EPs and single tracks, what of the full albums?

20. Ifriqiyya Electrique — Rûwâhîne One of several albums in the last couple of years that I can justly call unique.  North African sufi chants & industrial electronics & loops combine hypnotically and spaciously.

19 Clark — Death Peak Who knew I liked electronic music so much? But Clark, on this record at least, manages both warmth and frigidity that works for me.

18 Princess Nokia — 1992 Deluxe ask me again in a year, I suspect this will rank higher. Multi community radical queer feminist hip hop for the real world.  And it’s fun.

17 Pill Fangs — PF1 Sometimes bands don’t do things that are dramatically new but they do the old stuff better.  Cueing off Velvets & Voidoids with a garage passion & a surreal wit makes for a great ride. The cover of Tower of Song ain’t half bad either.

16. Jane Weaver — Modern  Near perfect modern electronic psych pop. As bright and bold as anything on here.

Jane Weaver at Blue Dot 

15. Bedouine — Bedouine And near perfect Laurel Canyon country folk pop, with a disarming protest element from Azniv Korkeijan’s birthplace in Aleppo. I’ve seen fair comparison to Bobby Gentry & Leonard Cohen too.

14. Tamikrest — Kidal probably my favourite of the various so-called desert blues bands around, and perhaps the one whose sound has evolved more seamlessly into a global sound.  

13. Floating Points — Reflections Mojave A more band-oriented outing this time, Sam Shepherd’s FP recorded electronics & guitars in the desert to produce a spacious space rock that  is updated rather than nostalgic prog.

12. Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express — Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins Great title, great record. This time out Chuck’s been listening to that Bolan boogie, Ronson riffs etc but still distinctly himself. And a cracking rock protest song to finish in Alex Nieto.

Chuck Prophet at ULU

11. Thundercat — Drunk Took me a while to appreciate how good this is.  Not that I didn’t see the skill but the soul seeped through later.  

Before the top 10 a few near misses.  Albums i enjoy but perhaps don’t come back to as much as those on this list. Afghan Whigs, Songhoy Blues, Ibibio Sound Machine, Wilhelm Otto, Black Country Communion, TootArd, Andrea Belfi, Snowdrops, Ghostpoet, Mogwai all came soooo close to the top 20.

10. Avital Raz — The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent Avital’s twisted love stories are the musical equivalent of fairytales reinvented by Paula Rego. She sings in soaring swoops and near spoken word of explicit sex and broken angels.  

Avital Raz at The New Continental

9. Kendrick Lamar — Damn is this as good as TPAB? In places yes, but overall the jury is out.  Occasionally Kendrick’s voice isn’t to my taste but the words, flow & beats overcome all that.

8. Aiden Baker & Claire Brentnall –Delirious Things Brentnall is half of last year’s number 1 Shield Patterns but here she adds her delicate but rich Kate Bush vocals to prolific multi instrumentalist Aiden Baker’s ambient dark wave beautifully.

7. Ex Eye — Ex Eye Brutal but subtle.  Colin Stetson’s bass saxophone led Black Metal Jazz combo are as heavy as it gets whilst keeping melodic narrative explorations central.

6. Astrïd & Rachel Grimes  — Through the Sparkle In a year of instrumental virtuosity the return of the wonderful pianist Rachel Grimes with French avant gardist group Astrïd is a highlight.  Each track here highlights different members of the group but working together like jazz soloists.  Cyril Secq’s heavily tremolo’d guitar makes for an expansive cinematic feel.

5. Slowdive  — Slowdive whisper it but i always preferred Slowdive over the likes of Ride or even MBV. This return is a creative triumph in remaining true to the Slowdive of 25 years ago and stepping into the future too. Nice to note that you can hear exactly who they influenced along the way. The Karma Police will be happy.

4. Kojey Radical  — In God’s Body For one thing i love Kojey’s deep resonant growl that adds a gravitas that isn’t needed but deserved.  His poetic, theatrical style helps too. And increasingly he seems confident to share with his collaborators without ego.

3. Mary Epworth — Elytral Five years wait for this, a reputed change of direction for Mary. This second album was both immediate and a slow burn. Distinctively Mary, even as she treated and warped her powerful vocals, it only seemed different at first. On listening, getting past hints of Goldfrapp and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, it’s a step onwards rather than away.

And so we come to the toughest choice on the list.  The top two wrote themselves.

I’ve known for most of the year what was going to top the list. I’ve also known for almost as long that the other one was too.  Incredible instrumental virtuosity, musical narrative, an imaginative approach and a soulful intensity characterises both.

1= Colin Stetson–All This I Do For Glory 

1= Hannah Peel–Mary Casio Journey to Cassiopeia 

One man, a huge instrument, the sound of a full band. Visceral romantic sounds like an oxymoron but it seems right to me.   Stetson is outstanding even amongst a year of instrumental virtuosity from the likes of Andrea Belfi, Matthew Bourne and Martin Heyne.

Colin Stetson at Gorilla (photo courtesy MaryAnne Hobbs)

On the other hand a full 30 piece traditional northern style brass band and analogue synths make Hannah Peel’s epic space sounds glorious and poignant.  Hearing lead track ‘Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula’ I realised I was seeing Chesley Bonestell paintings in the music.

Hannah Peel at Blue Dot 

I had the thrill of seeing a lot of great music played live in 2017 including a number of artists on this list. Back in July I got to see both Hannah Peel and Colin Stetson live within a week.  Those great performances didn’t help me separate their albums either.

One last thing, in best Columbo style, one thing that should be said. Many of us discovered a lot of this new music (and so much more) through MaryAnne Hobbs shows on BBC 6music. There’s a remarkable community arising around this, via twitter, and then meeting, for real, at a gig.  A bunch of us went to see Colin Stetson in the series of shows curated by MaryAnne as part of Manchester International Festival. As we waited for Colin, MaryAnne did a DJ set.  Towards the end of it she dropped Hannah Peel’s aforementioned Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula and the crowd applauded the dj booth.  A special moment in a year of special moments.  

 My friends, thank you for sharing in the music.  

2018 you have been challenged to surpass this year.

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A Cumbrian Tale, some of which is true, told indirectly.

On a recent stormy night I stood beneath a tree in the Lancaster University Library and told a story.  Yes, there is a real tree living in the library.  And yes, we’d already heard about the library’s ghost, believed to be Elizabeth Nelson, murdered nearby 151 years ago.

These library events, organised by the indefatigable Yvonne Battle-Felton, attract a good, diverse crowd so I began my tale on an ironic note.

It might sound funny, but I’m not from here.  [Other readers were from Spain, Peru, Wales, USA and elsewhere.]

I grew up 20 miles from here across in the county of Cumbria.  Now I didn’t realise until recently, but Cumbria is different.  It’s unique amongst the northern and central  lands of England by being bordered on all sides.  Conversation with Sarah Hall at Hay a couple of years ago confirmed this view.  From Solway Firth down to the Kent Estuary that was my playground, the vast expanses of water that are the wild  Irish Sea and ghostly Morecambe Bay surround three sides. To the East a spine of high moorland mountains, Howgill and Pennine, seal the land.  Cumbria is a land apart.

From the ancient kingdom of Rheged on, Cumbria has been distinct and separate.  The Romans crossed via mountain tops rather than boggy valleys. Unlike elsewhere, their road forced to fit the land not the reverse.  The vikings came but left nothing but words, place-names.  Malcolm IV ‘the maiden’ king claimed rule, but Cumbria was autonomous not fealty. Its rugged lands too complex to subjugate.  So, neither Scotland nor really England in any meaningful way.  

And perhaps neither this rational world nor that mysterious other land quite explain the lore of the county.  Not the full-blown faerie of the Western neighbours Ireland and Mann, but nor the attempted rationalisation of the South.  It is no surprise that this sublime land became the first home of the Romantic.  In the curious domestic menage of the Wordsworths is a fearsome loyalty to land and living, that infected and tortured the outsider Coleridge too. His attempt to consider the duality of man and landscape reflected in his intimate relationships too. Domestic and Ideal did not blend as it did for William, Mary & Dorothy.  He fared better than the arch-Cockney critical essayist Hazlitt though.  Predating the predatory narrator of Liber Amoris, a younger Hazlitt fled, was chased from the Lakes unceremoniously and with tail between his legs.  (Where, allegedly, he’d have been advised to keep it.)

Not all of this was in my tale in the library, but I held them with mention of vampires.  As literature students and readers, and with at least one Gothic novelist in the crowd, they knew that Stoker didn’t create the English literary vampire.  Of course they knew it came from Polidori who took more than a touch of Byron to do so.

We in the north know better. We in Cumbria tell of Thalaba the Destroyer, Bob Southey’s epic gothic poem. That’s where you’ll find the earliest vampires in English.  It’s Southey, creator of Goldilocks and the Three Bears too, who Byron called Mouthy Southey which tells you how to pronounce his name.  150 odd years later the father of the man who became film director Duncan Jones, had similar debate about his stage surname.  Romantic and Gothic echoes abound but always with a unique Cumbrian taste.

There was another Cumbrian writing of vampires though.  Just a couple of years after Southey and a few miles north the Blind Bard of Wigton published a poem called The Vampire.  John Stagg, it must be said, is deservedly neglected in comparison to his contemporaries. His work more interesting than good.  Lines about ‘his gore-besmirched jaw’ are graphic Gothic but in the ‘advert’ preceding the poem Stagg shows his best and worst.  Vampires, he asserts, ‘phlebotomise’ their victims but from that scientific description he moved quickly to them drawing blood by ‘suckosity’.  

So driving down the M6, I was thinking: what true ghost story might I tell.  I’d previously recounted experiences in the 17th century former vicarage turned hotel where I used to work.  A wild gust of wind buffeted the car and i thought of Peg Sleddal’s ghostly carriage and six careering down to Crackenthorpe Hall.

Who? You may ask. Well in the winter of 1643 Elizabeth ‘Peg’ Sleddal married one Lancelot Machell of Crackenthorpe Hall.  Lancelot had connection to the Clifford’s  (Lady Anne et al) of nearby Brougham Castle and on his demise Peg expected a nice estate.  She was angered to learn in his will, that she got only a third, and it is said that on certain September nights the howling Helm wind is her haunted carriage.

Such was belief in this, that fearful locals eventually exhumed poor Peg and reburied her in the bed of the river Eden beneath a huge slab.  It didn’t appease or restrain her vengeful spirit and still she rides to Crackenthorpe.

That was my story I decided as the road snaked down that curious bifurcated stretch off Shap Fell towards the gorgeous scars of the Lune Valley.  It was sometime after midnight, I sang along to the CD in the deck, my headlights lit her body by some pine trees on a bend.

Flash. A white dress, dark hair, rain-wracked on the motorway verge. Caught in the full beam glare. She stood seemingly motionless yet looking at me.  You know how some portraits’ gaze follows you round the room? Even at 70mph, in the rain and dark, i was sure she watched me drive by.

I braked carefully, cautious of the wet. There were no other cars around for a moment. I expected to see her car broken down, out of petrol perhaps but nothing.  Just the reflection of headlights on wet asphalt. 

I looked in my mirror. She wasn’t there.  The wind howled, rain squalled. There was nobody there. 

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What Have the Aliens Ever Done For Us? Some thoughts on Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy.

Aliens remain a potent symbol in the literature, usually now in Earthbound stories in which their alienness is intended to cast a satirical, ironic or revealing light upon our selves and our society. — Paul Kincaid, Call and Response p44

Judith Moffett’s Holy Ground Trilogy describes events following aliens called the Hefn coming to Earth and attempting to stop humans destroying the planet. “This book is the record of what happened to some of us because the Hefn came.” writes the character Nancy Sandford in the prologue section of The Ragged World entitled ‘The Hefn on Earth’.

This deliberately simplistic description obscures a salient point. The Holy Ground Trilogy has aliens throughout, they play many significant roles, and yet the trilogy is not really about the Aliens.   It is about relationships. Deeply embedded in Moffett’s work are analyses of religion, sexuality and environmentalism.  The personal is political amidst issues of human to human relationships, and human engagement with the planet.

The trilogy isn’t conventionally structured, book one The Ragged World (henceforth TRW) is a ragged (ahem!) fix-up incorporating five previously published stories   There is a diversity in these stories that whilst some of Moffett’s themes are established here they aren’t intensely foregrounded.  Hindsight from book two Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (TimeStream) and the prologue change readings of The Ragged World by tying things together more. Then final volume The Bird Shaman (Bird) shifts character emphasis slightly, and theme decisively.  Moffett, having begun with personal stories (of crisis, romance & tragedy) in book one, develops big themes to which she adds sf conceptualisation in book two, and brings the two into symbiosis in book three.  The series’ protagonist gets a passing reference on p263 of the first book but doesn’t actually appear until the second volume.  Nevertheless she becomes a memorable, intriguing character who informs the whole trilogy.

Readers at the time first encountered the Hefn and the events around them in a Nebula shortlisted novella called ‘The Hob’ (Asimov’s Magazine, May 1988).  In book form this became chapter 2 of TRW ‘”Ti Whinny Moor Thoo Cums At Last.”‘

On the North Yorkshire Moors a Hefn named Elphi awakes from hibernation and is seen by a walker, Jenny Shepherd, lost on the moors.  Torn between self-preservation and the urge to rescue the lost human Elphi kidnaps Jenny and takes her to the Hefn hideout.  Thus we learn that a few aliens were abandoned here by their ship 400 years ago as punishment.  The Yorkshire Hefn became the Hob of folklore, secretly helping at ‘good’ farms.  It’s a charming story in it’s own right, cleverly linking alien and folk tale. The details of Jenny on the moors are evocative, engaging the reader in the landscape.  It’s detail shared with a much earlier poem by Moffett “Whinny Moor Crossing” based on her own experience out on the moors.  ‘The Hob’ almost stands aside from the rest of TRW but sets the ground for much that follows. 

Although ‘The Hob’ gained a Nebula shortlisting, it was the next story that garnered most attention. The controversial novella ‘Tiny Tango’ also picked up Nebula and Hugo shortlisting. (Lois McMaster Bujold won both.)  As far as I can ascertain it may be the first work of science fiction to feature an HIV+ heterosexual protagonist  (Thomas M Disch and Samuel R Delany had written gay characters earlier.)  This is the earliest set story in the sequence, beginning in 1985.  Reading in book form we already know that Nancy Sandford is alive in 2023 but on first reading the detail of HIV and AIDS was new and disturbing.  Perhaps more so is Nancy’s reaction & coping strategy.  As a high flying academic she abruptly shifts to a tiny backwater college, avoids social contact, and focuses on her work as a botanist.  She also begins cross dressing and observing men, even fashioning a prosthetic for using urinals.   

‘Tiny Tango’ is not an easy story to absorb.  Nancy’s botanical work is, at points, linked to her illness, to purity and breeding, even to the aliens.  Early on her potato plants develop an aphid-borne virus, and as she destroys the infected to save the healthy she reflects on the AIDS riots of the late 90s.  The inspiration of the monastic Mendel directs her organic gardening.  She watches porn as an unattached woman and even references “certain water sports videos” (TRW p102.)  When circumstances force her to take a young male student assistant she lusts after him in secret.  All of this was shocking in 1989, but interestingly nested together. The cross dressing and cross fertilisation reflect each other.  The ironic hermaphroditism of Nancy Sandford joyfully watching cocks exhibited in public washrooms and the flowering cultivars with male and female flowers entwine.  

We learn more about the original Hefn and their banishment to Earth in ‘Final Tomte’ where the last survivor of a Swedish group is the subject of a search by the returning Hefn Pomphrey.  Up to now the Hefn have appeared largely benevolent but this story changes that.  There are two alien species, the Hefn who we see, and their masters the mysterious Gafr who are altogether more forceful.

As a young man Gunnar Lundqvïst helped the tomte (think the Swedish folkloric variant of a hob) on his family farm.  60 years later, the heavy drinking Gunnar lets slip this story and the Hefn arrive to seek their kin.  Pomphrey reveals a dark, almost fascistic, side to the Hefn as he insists that Gunnar’s feelings are inconsequential in their search. They will use mind control and memory probe techniques against his will. So Gunnar goes on the run.  

The poignant story of a dying alien the last of his group becomes darker and ultimately foreshadows parts of the later books.  

“It’s necessary” replied Pomphrey, “surely what’s necessary is neither right nor wrong.”

And from the other side there are mutterings of resistance and anti-Hefn sentiment.

“What will these Hefn have made us into before they’re through?”

These three intriguing stories together created the circumstances for Moffett’s ultimate story though looking back one wonders how clear this was for her at the time.  A fourth story ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ published in 1989 becomes the first chapter of TRW.  This story sets up events that prove formative for important characters later, but in isolation it works less well.  

The episodic nature of TRW begins to settle with the return to characters from ‘Remembrance of Things Future’ with the blunt & unmitigated tragic events of  ‘The Ragged Rock’.  A massive nuclear power station meltdown at Peach Bottom, Virginia & the personal consequences introduce both Liam O’Hara who will be important in TimeStream but also set up themes of trauma that Moffett will return to.  

If The Ragged World is a mish mash of individual stories setting up what appears to be Moffett’s primary concerns then Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream does something less expected.  The Hefn have put an end to human fertility until we learn to respect the earth and stop destroying it.  (As an aside, this almost inverts her debut novel Pennterra where the conflict is between human settlers and the native environment of a colony planet.)

TimeStream largely rejects the alien deus ex machina solution in favour of a focus on what a few humans are already doing.  

Liam O’Hara comes to the foreground as a mathematical genius credited with discovering vital equations that may identify hot spot ‘holy places’ where man & nature have coexisted in a fundamental way.  Wisely Moffett doesn’t try to explain this in a technical way.  References to ley lines and Holy Ground imply rather than detail a philosophy the Hefn are steering.  

Liam’s friend at the Hefn institution the Bureau of Temporal Physics (BTP) is the young Pam Pruitt alluded to in passing at the end of TRW.  Although seemingly beginning with Liam the lead in TimeStream gradually shifts to Pam.  

At the BTP these young mathematicians work with Hefn to look at key points in the past where things might have changed.  To adopt a term from a different strand of SF, alternate history, they use time transceivers to examine jonbar points and identify ‘fixes’.

We’ve already had an implication that Liam & Pam have an unconventional relationship, when Moffett includes an odd interpolation:

Odd, in part, because it appears out of place and unexplained amidst correspondence between Pam and Liam that is otherwise contextualising the world of 2026 post-Hefn baby ban.  Odd too in the setting up of an overtly asexual character in her 20s.  This is something SF didnt do.  But looking back across Moffett’s other work it fits.  I can’t think of another writer who so routinely & sympathetically incorporated characters with less conventionally depicted sexuality.  Right from her first published story, ‘Surviving’ with its explicit, obsessive relationship she has looked from different angles.  

It is still odd though to see it expressed this way as early as page 6 of TimeStream before we know Pam Pruitt as a person.  In the adjacent letter to Liam though, Pam talks of conversation with her mother.  “I’m going to talk to her about Dad” she says ominously.  

Pam, in fact, has had some kind of breakdown. Her ability to “set coordinates” in her work has caused her to leave the BTP. Her mathematical “intuition” has gone.  So she takes a different approach, writing about her personal traumas, and global events.  Partially framed as a letter to Liam which she admits to oblique ulterior motives over, this sees Pam aged 26 looking back over her teens and early adult years.  Locus magazine’s description quoted on the paperback cover comes from this:

“A cross between Huckleberry Finn and, perhaps, Catcher In The Rye.”  

Certainly there’s a double handed coming of age story here. Pam and Liam, but we already know the latter’s trauma: his beloved best friend died due to the Peach Bottom meltdown; and we saw his tortured attempt to take his own life by hiking into the contaminated zone. 

Judith Moffett with poet James Merrill in 1974

Now we get Pam’s story, but where Liam’s history is told in relatively linear fashion  (a few prescient notes aside) Pam’s is very much an exercise in self-analysis.  Her telling is deliberately disjointed as she views her younger self with questioning hindsight.

Certainly I had a lot of faith that the Hefn would do what the people had refused to — that they would fix things — that when they got through doing whatever they were doing here, the world be a better place.

Now, I think I probably trusted them mostly because they weren’t people.

We learn that Pam is hiding something from herself, but not what.  There are clues but as large parts of the novel are from her viewpoint the truth is ambiguous.  

Eventually Pam ends up at Hurt Hollow, a homestead formerly maintained by Hannah and Orrin Hubbell.  (Note: I typed owned then replaced it with maintained as representing the philosophy of the Hubbell relationship with the land.)  She effectively hides out there, a sort of custodian homesteader.  There are echoes of Walden of course but the real life inspiration for Hurt Hollow seems faithfully transcribed to fiction by Moffett/Pam. 

At this point as Moffett delves deeper into environmental concerns one might think of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre too.  A story like ‘Muir on Shasta’ offers a deep engagement with the land.  There’s a second similarity to Robinson in Moffett’s comfort writing long discussions arguing through her themes.  

Moffett also uses Pam’s self-conscious memoir to discuss her own novel.  Questions we may have from TRW are deflected by Pam musing on why she didn’t “wonder more about what [the Hefn] were, in fact, doing.”  

Gradually we do learn, we see the Hefn use mind wipe abilities on opposition, the hypnotic Broadcast creates a near global baby ban, and wasteful technology is restricted.  Research using Liam’s equations identifies hot spots but there’s an underlying insistence that no ground is holier than others.  Institutes of missionaries are created, working locally on environmental issues and pushing the Hefn agenda but renamed  Gaians.

There is resistance, as in the bar mutterings in ‘Final Tomte’ through to an attempt to kill the Hefn Humphrey and branding the young Gaian volunteers traitors.  

But this is primarily plot, mostly Moffett is demonstrating the homestead life, modeling the Gaian plan before it ever was a plan.  And she is exploring the response to deep trauma in Pam.  

So, belatedly, we get to The Bird Shaman published a decade later, in part due to personal changes in Moffett’s life and part trends in publishing. 

By now the ban is biting. The Gaian missions are growing but so is the anger. Liam’s sister Brett (married to Nancy Sandford’s assistant Eric in one of the little ties by which Moffett brings strands together) is desperate for a child.  

But in Utah a rare child, Lexi, is the star of a didactic soap drama about Mormon pioneers. Until she runs away and finds her way to the Salt Lake City Gaian mission and Pam Pruitt.  

The Mormon community has, in this novel, an increased antipathy to the Hefn.  As Pam recognises, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints childbearing is not just a biological instinct but a deep theological imperative.  And in Utah they are the law.

So by sheltering Lexi, Pam has challenged senior Mormon leaders.  But Lexi has been abused regularly by her grandfather, an important figure in the church.   Pam cannot avoid involvement, despite the risk to her own psyche.  Her past gradually becomes clearer (and we see too how trauma has impinged on Liam’s relationships as his boyfriend is recognised as his Jeff proxy.)

Bird is a longer, darker novel than its predecessors  (AIDS and meltdown in TRW notwithstanding)  Lexi’s story and Pam’s are examined in depth.  The book opens with the funeral of a character from the earlier books.  This allows a brief reiteration of Moffett’s themes before opposition to the Hefn is thrust to the foreground when Humphrey is challenged.  The undercurrent of violence is therefore present from the start in a way it isn’t in TRW or TimeStream.  

But Pam’s place in Utah begins to have a new meaning.  The lost mathematical intuition of TimeStream Pam is replaced gradually with a shamanic “strong dreaming” that engages the now and the past to create a future.  Study of prehistoric cave paintings gives insight into the Hefn on Earth and human interaction with their lands.  The BTP in TimeStream looked specifically at points where society transitioned, hunter-gatherer to agrarian, agrarian to prevent industrial etc, for balance points.  Pam’s new abilities shift this again but it requires her healing to allow earth’s healing and perhaps, vice versa.  

To be honest, I’m not sure I totally understand the end of Bird or if, in a literal sense, that isn’t deliberate.  It becomes increasingly spiritual as meaning becomes symbol.  

Religion has been a recurrent element for Judith Moffett which I’ve barely touched on. Pennterra is a rare example of Quakers in science fiction, for example. In TRW there are references to different denominations defining backgrounds for good and bad, before Baptist preaching of anti Hefn sentiment almost turns tragic in TimeStream. (We might compare language used here to some of the racist rhetoric of certain leaders past and present.) Chapter titles in TimeStream mostly quote & reference biblical verse.  Including chapter 15 ‘Holy Ground – Exodus 3:5’ where the series takes its name in retrospect.

And Bird looks acutely and with some knowledge it seems, at the structures of the LDS church.  Alongside this are chapters of deep human devotion to the Hefn and a new interpretation of the HefnGafr relationship. 

 Pam certainly isn’t unaware of her feelings for Humphrey in this regard. Liam who has significant reason to owe Humphrey, and despite his haunted obsession with Jeff’s memory, questions this too.  

It was the rising generation that collectively had created the transforming myth Pam had failed to imagine for their parents.  Conjured by intentionality out of the quantum universe, the HefnGafr appeared on Earth to save themselves by saving us...The young humans had invented the version they required, and then chosen to believe it.

Ultimately that perhaps is Moffett’s message.  A young Gaian says at the end “I don’t suppose it was psychologically possible to think beyond that, about there being any kind of bright side to failing.”  Until we learn to see beyond the now, as Pam does by strong dreaming, the paradigm can‘t change. Whether that is personal like Pam’s or Liam’s trauma (and suddenly we see how Nancy Sandford changed her paradigm 50 years earlier) or on the full scale human level, Moffett lays down a challenge.  

It is the way that blunt challenge for humanity to change or die is wrapped in memorable and unique characters that I initially look at. The deep, thoughtful examinations of alternative sexuality on a personal level, and the partial  deconstruction of religion to uncover aspects of faith and spirituality flesh this out.  Moffett offers up ambiguity and certainty in equal measure making The Holy Ground Trilogy a remarkable and important work of modern SF.
** Judith Moffett’s work can mostly be found in e-book form at Gollancz SF Gateway

A collection of otherwise uncollected stories is due soon **  

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The Cutting Season – Attica Locke 

Attica Locke’s second novel opens with the discovery of a murder and concludes with the solving of that crime.  The identification of the killer is however secondary here to the setting, which in itself makes the murder a consequence.

Belle Vie is a historic Louisiana plantation house turned museum & high end event venue. Caren Gray is both manager and descendant of the estate’s former slaves.  Early one morning the body of a migrant woman from the neighbouring big corporate cane fields is found on the estate.  For Caren that brings layers of trouble.

But as I said, The Cutting Season is barely about whodunit.  There are the usual clues, false leads, obtuse cops, rogue reporters etc but on this Locke hangs a deep picture of recent and historic American south.  It is, inevitably, a picture of racism.

There are some brutal details in apparent throwaway asides here:

She’d voted for him on last year’s election, even though she’d never seen the man in person.  He’d actually run uncontested, but it was 2008, and she’d felt weird about leaving one of the spaces blank. She didn’t want to lose her say on a technicality.  She’d gone over that ballot three or four times, standing alone in the booth, tracing a finger under the first line, the word President(p35)

Throughout The Cutting Season Attica Locke reminds us of how the past continues to inform the present.  On a personal level Caren clashes with Belle Vie ‘s cook, a job here mother once held.  Her childhood friend on the estate was the white owner’s son and the Clancy family kindness to the Grays is overt.  Kindness as the whitefolk see it.  Or kindness as the rich folk view it, for the racial aspect here is almost indistinguishable from a class aspect.

There are plots within plots here, the young actor in Belle Vie’s historical playlets who wants a true black history to be shown (‘a story to put to rest that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” mess for good’); or the brutal overseer of the migrant workforce on the neighbouring farm, and the false contrast of historic Belle Vie and modern corporate Groveland Farms.  And there’s a crucial historical coincidence.  Inés Avalo probably wasn’t the first murder at Belle Vie.  Sometime in the 1870s during the Reconstruction a former slaves named Jason disappeared.  His great great granddaughter is Caren Gray.  The story young Donovan wants to tell at Belle Vie is Jason’s story & that of the black sherif who investigated it.  

Without spoilers, the discoveries all this reveal are both predictable and surprising.  The quotidian details and pointed asides are perhaps the same. I’m not a black American so sensations such as Caren’s election anxiety are new to me, but maybe familiar to others?  

The pull of the place on it’s residents is important.  Locke uses it to show why many former slaves stayed after emancipation, how those who worked the land, then the house, remained tied to “the true pull of family, and the impossibility of escaping our bonds, or ever truly forgetting where we came from”

Or as Caren did, returned. The reporter Owens calls her on this:

“You one of those who never went back?”

He was speaking of New Orleans, of course.

Katrina too, resonates in this world.  Raymond Clancy justifies his political ambition through it as much as his black employees fear the local consequence: the sale of their livelihood.  

Ultimately Attica Locke uses two murders to reflect on two societies that have too much that is bad in common.   The slaves and ex-slaves of Belle Vie or the migrant undocumented workforce of Groveland all suffer under their field and house bosses.  The staff of contemporary Belle Vie are still under the whim of the owners the Clancy family.

As a review in The Guardian of Locke’s third novel the political crime novel Pleasantville notes, the near history of Locke’s settings gives us pause. We see here, tangentially, the thrill of the Obama presidency for Caren Gray but we are reminded at the same time of the disappointments to come. We see in Jason the joy of emancipation, the desire to work & build a home, but we know what comes next.  This may be the universal dichotomy of historical fiction, but the powerful extremes Locke chooses emphasise the echoes of then in now.

The Cutting Season is a simple thriller with rich political nuance.  It shines light where many are reluctant and doesn’t often flinch.  Attica Locke is an author who makes me think as much as she entertains me.  

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Ever After – Lisa Goldstein 

Fairytales have meanings.  If you believe Betelheim, for instance, they are heavily laden metaphors for puberty & sexual awakening.  If you look elsewhere you’ll find them described as consolatory fables by Calvino; offering hope of release from poverty and subjection.

From the late-60s at least, women writers have been revisiting fairytales and revisioning them.  Anne Sexton in poetry, Josephine Saxton in SF and then most famously Angela Carter put new (or revisioned old spins on familiar stories.)  Carter eroticised her versions, but others looked at other meanings.

Lisa Goldstein in ‘Ever After’ doesn’t take a specific tale and rewrite it. Rather she looks at the next step, the famous ‘happy ever after’.  Her story begins at the wedding.  The princess’ dress is too tight.  She didn’t have money for a dress, it was chosen for her, even to being the wrong colour to match her eyes.  She knows nobody. The ladies in waiting struggle with her accent.  The Prince puts her to lessons: etiquette, manners and elocution to correct her “pretty little accent.” She joins the court ladies for needlework, which she is good at from sewing for her stepsisters, and gossip, which she knows nothing of. Everything happens to her.

Gradually she becomes isolated & lonely, until she receives a secret message from revolutionaries via a young harpist, Alison.  Persuading Alison to give her harp lessons she makes a friend and learns new perspectives on the court and the king.  Increasingly she is estranged from her prince, whilst his former love watches with the ladies of the court.

Goldstein throughout her work uses the telling of stories within stories to emphasise meaning and ‘Ever After’ is no exception.  From the start, throughout her wedding day the princess is told her place:

“You’re very fortunate,” people told her, over and over again.  “Very fortunate.” The princess had smiled and nodded, thinking, But what about him? Don’t they know how fortunate he is to have me?

On her first night with the Prince she notes:

Did he really think she knew nothing about what went on between a man and a woman? There had been nights, at home, when her stepsisters would talk of nothing else.

And in conversation with Alison she realises she is the subject of tales too.

“I know, my lady,” Alison said.

The princess stopped. Of course Alison knew. No doubt the whole country knew. No doubt Alison had even sung songs about the orphan who had married a prince.

Thus Goldstein makes explicit the storying involved.  That the fairytale is not real but has real meaning.

As things worsen for the princess she turns to Alison who reveals that her boyfriend the revolutionary is planning something.  Will Alison join him?

“…I think he doesn’t love the people so much as he loves himself. That if he does win a war he’ll set himself up as King and start all over again. And I’ve had all the dealings I want with kings.”

So Alison and the princess discuss disappointment, the absence of happy ever after.  “You just keep going, that’s all. You do the best you can.” Alison says.

Meanwhile the ladies are gossiping, mocking ‘Cinder Girl’ (for this is after Cinderella in case we weren’t sure.)  Their talk of Lady Flora, the prince’s ex-, is abruptly curtailed when the princess enters.  Stories matter.

Goldstein has taken what AS Byatt calls the narrative grammar of fairytale and their matter of fact telling but deconstructed it.  When the princess finally snaps and decides to escape it is not to join the revolution, what might seem a secondary instauration, but to recognise that the wrongness of the fantasy is in the premise.  The justice of the ending is external to the story as told.  The princess meets her godmother a final time, thanks her but says of happily ever after:

“I don’t want it,” the princess said. “Give it to someone else.  Give it to Flora, she could probably use it.”

Marina Warner writes that “Fairytales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” (Once Upon a Time, introduction, 2014)

Lisa Goldstein has recognised that but challenges the Grimm-through-Disney assumption of the ending.  From these familial tales to Tolkien’s Return of the King fantasy has rewarded its protagonists with instauration of a higher place.  Goldstein steps outside, the princess regains happiness by rejecting the broken promise of happy ever after.  In doing so Goldstein tells us that the stories we have always been told might not be for our best interests.  And particularly for women, whether Alison or the Princess, agency is not given in these stories but in Goldstein’s version they sieze it joyously.

Note:

‘Ever After’  was first published in the December 1984 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine but reprinted in Goldstein’s 1994 collection Travellers in Magic (Tor Books) As Goldstein notes in a brief afterword there are echoes of Charles & Diana here.

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New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson 

Kim Stanley Robinson’s fascinating and provocative 18th novel New York 2140 is set several decades after two major climate events have raised sea levels hugely.  Coastal cities are therefore largely underwater. New York is no exception. Robinson’s characters live co-operatively mostly in one building, the former Met Life skyscraper, but exist in a variety of colliding worlds outside.

In the comments on Adam Roberts’ Guardian review we find  the following exchange: 

Solarphysicist: Oh. What a stunningly original idea for a story. Yawn.

Robmatic: I’m not aware of any other novels that are set in a future flooded New York.

Here’s the thing though, despite Robinson’s just reputation as a (the?) leading climate change novelist, New York 2140 isn’t about climate change really. Or at least it’s about a lot more too.

Primarily it’s about economics. It’s a polemic about how and more pertinently why our market based economic systems fail and fail again. (Clue: it’s a feature not a bug.)  In this respect a novel set 123 years from now takes on the mantle of a historical novel.  

Each broad chapter in this 600+ page novel is, like the Met skyscraper, split into units focused on 8 character sets.  Mutt and Jeff, coders whose attempted hack on the financial systems precipitates the personal events of the novel; Inspector Gen Octaviasdottir, policewoman who looks into Mutt and Jeff’s disappearance; Charlotte, the lawyer & head of the Met residents; Vlade, building supervisor passionate about his work and nursing a dark past; Franklin, unscrupulous market trader gambling on his algorithms being ahead of the game, and it is a game; Amelia Black, globetrotting cloud sensation with a dirigible from which she films her beloved wildlife; and uneducated 12 year old orphan squatters with impulsive grand ideas Stefan and Roberto.  Each has their own interesting things to say about their world. And each we begin to care about as they grow in the novel. This compartmentalised structure maintains the flow of the novel and neatly disguises something. 

NY2140 is largely a novel with several plots of the conspiracy kind, but almost lacks an overt plot of the story kind.  It is episodic with moments of drama (no spoilers but for those who have read it, Amelia’s polar bears is probably the highest drama.)  Long time readers of Robinson will be aware that this is what he does frequently. He writes process rather than story in a way that makes the process appear to be the result.  NY2140 is a distillation of an approach that has recurred in his novels since Pacific Edge at least.  So where much SF is about something going wrong, for Robinson the crisis is a given.  Small, personal details go wrong, the overarching crisis is already present. The trick is the tying of the personal to the global somehow.

Robinson does this using a character not yet mentioned. Labelled variously ‘a citizen’; ‘that citizen’; ‘the citizen’; these sections explain in clear detail what goes on in market trading, what happens to the virtual money circulating. These sections are a form of Greek Chorus telling us what is happening alongside the sections showing us what happens.  Again this is not new in Robinson’s novels, Michel plays this role in the Mars series at times, the prisoner in Pacific Edge writing his novel, perhaps the whole future sections of Galileo’s Dream add to this.  What this does is allow Robinson to make a meta fictional statement.  Here, he says, you were told this would happen, and it did.  It allows a novel set 123 years from now to be a form of historical novel because these are the scenes where the past is explained. New York’s past, capitalism’s past, the ecological past. The citizen, or perhaps citizens, form meaning out of the chaos.  Amidst the many quotes used between chapters here one by Robinson’s former mentor Frederic Jameson is notable. In part it reads:

The great collective project has a meaning and it is that of utopia.  But the problem of utopia, of collective meaning, is to find an individual meaning. 

I’m about to state what seems glaringly obvious to me. Almost the entirety of Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre is summed up in that statement. His great collective project has been to offer individuals meaning within utopia.  

In a 1994 interview he told me that in a utopia people can still die tragically, can still fall in love with the wrong person.  In New York 2140 he avoids that, or engineers ways around it. There is redemption.   This may be both his strength and his weakness.  We are pulled in to empathise with the cocky, arrogant Franklin, to dream with the boys event as we fear for them, to laugh at and with Amelia as she is both ditzy yet gets things done.  But, we need to ask, where is the edge? This New York has its villains seeking to protect their high-level con but no streetcrime. The universal but not the individual when it comes to the dark side.  It has ties to history, notably in the boys’ confidante Mr Hexter, this novel’s Tom Barnard perhaps, but is oddly detached geographically.  Despite Amelia’s peregrinations we rarely feel this New York is a part of a larger world.  Indeed Amelia’s role is most often to show off the one true science fictional element here, the balloon based cloud cities and cloud ecologies of which perhaps more could be explored elsewhere.

Amelia is involved in a couple of the more physically dramatic scenes here, as are Stefan and Roberto, but these are rapidly dealt with and moved on from.  There are typical Robinson set pieces, diving a sunken city, walking around describing the scenery, conversations about history, that serve to tie the land to the people. This has always appeared a key concern of his, but it doesn’t offer a broad dramatic impetus.  This is not to say there’s no drama, but it is mostly subtle such as Charlotte’s interactions with her ex partner, or almost comic relief in the boys’ scrapes and near misses.  The human things that continue to happen even in utopian scenarios.

Which brings me back to the historical novel.  One of the ironies of the historical novel is that, by and large, the reader knows what is going to happen. There are fixed points. The tension is either in the gap between the reader’s awareness and the characters; or in the journey to that fixed point.  The process.  Robinson’s favourite aspect. Both Science Fiction and the Historical novel have been described as being about the era they are written rather than the time they are set.  In NY2140 Robinson spends a lot of time talking about the past, about what led to the situation now.  Not the now of 2140 but the now of 2017.  The climate change events are glossed over as consequences of the economics of now.  The references to 2008, to Bernanke and Piketty, are our fixed points of history.  The novel is as much about what caused 2008 as about the climate or the future.  The structure is a repeating “I told you so.” to the world, the plot is a reassuring “we can rebuild it.”  

Even in choosing the Met Life building he alludes to history. Briefly the world’s tallest building, it replicates the Campanile in a sunken city we already know. Venice.  History ties this book together.

New York 2140 therefore is a science fictional attempt to take a historical perspective on very recent events.  It is Robinson’s boldest attempt to achieve that fusion of individual and collective meaning that Jameson talks of.  It is full of detail that do nothing to advance the story but do enhance the theme.  It is a novel that couldn’t be written by any other novelist.  Every chapter is soaked in familiar Robinson touchstones. This is a comfort, strength and weakness. The diving (way back to “Venice Drowned” or Green Mars); the wise old figure from the Three Californias, Frederic Jameson of course, and en passant a sly nod to Samuel R Delany alongside an overt reference to Octavia Butler. 

If the solutions seem almost too easy in the end, if our heroes find meaning as individuals and as collectives, well Robinson is a utopian, his optimism in the process, the journey, is infectious at times.  He conveys that very human need to be a part of something, but without losing individuality.  New York 2140 stands alone in his oeuvre yet is ineluctably central to it.  With one slight change of tack maybe. In the past Robinson tried to argue against himself, to debate within the pages of his novels.  That is reduced here, NY2140 is at its core a lecture, or perhaps a seminar, on economics. It is a book to pay heed to.  “I told you so” leading into a call to arms.

And it isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a climate change novel.  

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Winterreise — Andrew Foster-Williams, Christopher Gould and Mariele Neudecker — The Great Hall, Lancaster University

(Originally posted on The Lunecy Review, 20 November 2009.)

The high water mark of the second flowering of German Romanticism is the work of Franz Schubert, and in particular the song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller tells the tragic story of a young man who travels to the human of a woman he loves, only to be rejected, and of his desolate ‘winter journey’ afterwards.

The German born but British based artist Mariele Neudecker has explored many of the themes of German Romanticism over her career, from early works reproducing the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in three dimensions to her more recent film setting of Mahler’s kindertotenlieder. Her films comprising her Winterreise are both literal and metaphorical representations of Schubert and Muller and serve as a backdrop and complement to the performance of bass baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould.
As one of the audience told me afterwards, the combination of recital and film can be a mistake, one distracting from the other, but Winterreise gets it absolutely right. Foster-Williams is a great singer and he performs remarkably across a difficult, arduous work. 85 minutes with a furrowed brow almost, as he portrays the anguish and angst of Muller’s protagonist (himself an echo of Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther a generation earlier.) It should be noted that recordings of Schubert generally feature a tenor but the deeper voice has equal merits for me. Gould is a sensitive pianist, careful and responsive, coming to the fore in the Sturm und Drang mid sections, fading almost into the mist at other points. His rapport with Foster-Williams and supporting appreciation of both singer and visuals is near perfect to my ear.
As for the visuals themselves? Neudecker has consistently adopted a long view, and that is ever-present here. The films repeatedly look away from the observer (something seen in the paintings of Friedrich) placing us in the protagonist’s mind throughout. Looped film of a boat wake cutting through icy seas draw the eye both towards the departure point and, tellingly, under the ice. Snow covered streets change with the light yet remain essentially the same. Often elements of apparent interest are distant, mist-shrouded and ghostly. Each film takes an epigraph paraphrasing Muller, koan like, suggestive.
There has been much debate over the years about the ending of Winterreise. Muller depicts the appearance of a barefoot elderly hurdy-gurdy man, a scene open to multiple interpretations, and Neudecker maintains this ambiguity. I have my ideas; it is a tragic piece exploring dark emotions and the elemental sublime at the heart of Romanticism.
Winterreise was first made in 2004 and has been performed like this about 25 times since. Whether it is the art, the music or Romanticism that draws you along, the end result is a superb work worth revisiting. LICA are to be commended for bringing such world-class performers to Lancaster.

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