Sum Buks

Some of my favourites from the (many, many) books I’ve read this year.

Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory – An utterly charming, quirky and funny story of a family of American psychics and flimflam artists. Beautifully-written and warm-hearted.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway – A genuine achievement, this one. Brain-wrenchingly complex, ambitious, and propelled by righteous fury about the current state of the world. I take my hat off to Harkaway; I could never land a book like this in a million years.

The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy, by RJ Barker – I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fantasy, but these are wonderful books. Complex, full of wholly-realised characters, and utterly stuffed with antlers. Essential. Read them.

The Slow Horses novels, by Mick Herron – If John le Carre was writing his Circus novels in the Star Trek mirror universe, this is what they would look like. Jackson Lamb, sort of an antimatter George Smiley, is one of the great literary creations.

Soho Dead, by Greg Keen – This is a very nice piece of Soho noir, with a genuinely moreish sense of wry humour. Liked this one a lot.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer – Huge, technicolour, and batshit crazy and still, in places, almost unbearably touching. A masterpiece.

The Price You Pay, by Aiden Truhen – There is nothing else quite like this book. It’s fast, funny, extravagantly violent, and mad as fuck, and I loved it.

The Willow By Your Side, by Peter Haynes – I think this is one of the most assured debuts I’ve read in quite a while. A dark fantasy of English myth and landscape sparked by a handful of broken lives. As if Ben Wheatley had written Mythago Wood. Splendid book, it really is.

The Real-Town Murders, by Adam Roberts – I’ve thought, for a long time, that Roberts is one of our best and most interesting writers, and this one doesn’t disappoint, a madcap collision of virtual reality, post-scarcity, panoption surveillance and Alfred Hitchcock.

Dogs Of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Can’t praise this one highly enough. Rex is, indeed, a Good Dog.

Moskva and Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood – Great, great espionage novels set around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union but propelled by the dark weight of history. More of these, please.

Rosewater, by Tade Thompson – This is just a magnificent book. I’m in awe of it.

I’ve probably missed some books out, and I’ll probably add to this as they occur to me, but that’ll do for now.


Tales From The Black Sarcophagus

It’s now a little over two years since a shellshocked Boris Johnson and Michael Gove appeared at that press conference and admitted that, yes, it seemed that the Leave campaign had been successful and that Britain would, in due course, be departing the European Union. From the looks on their faces and their glum and noncommital performance, it looked for all the world as if they had not expected to win and had no idea what to do next.

It was certainly not a referendum that David Cameron, who had finally seen no alternative but to grasp the Tory eurosceptic nettle, had expected to lose. The issue of the European Union had dogged Tory Prime Ministers almost since Ted Heath took us into what was then the Common Market in 1973. A referendum in 1975 confirmed that almost seventy percent of voters wanted to remain in the EU.

In the decades that followed the right-wing press peddled a steady stream of anti-EU stories, including one persistent myth that the EU wanted to ban curved bananas. This drip-drip in the ears of people who already resented what they saw as European meddling in British affairs eventually changed the landscape of opinion enough that, with hindsight, what happened next was inevitable.

Eurosceptic pressure grew within the Tory party, poisoning John Major’s premiership, and it became so acute – bolstered by what at the time seemed the all-conquering UKIP, itself a spinoff of disaffected Tories, at least in the beginning – that in 2013 Cameron proposed a simple vote to either leave or remain in the EU.

It was an act of towering hubris. Cameron saw that the Tories had won the now long-forgotten referendum on voting reform – which, to be honest, you could have missed even as it was taking place, there was so little interest in it – and he saw the Remain result of the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, and, in the 2015 general election, he put an EU referendum in the Tory Manifesto. He had, in effect, already won two referendums, and he would again. The People would not vote to leave, the issue of the EU would be put to bed in the Party for at least a generation, and he and George Osborn could go back to making the country miserable.

And maybe, in an alternate universe, that did happen. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that one.

I suppose we could look, as Cameron seems to have done, at Indyref as a kind of dry-run for the EU referendum. It was one of the dirtiest, angriest, most divisive campaigns I can remember and it caused divisions which remain to this day. There’s a real sense that, for Scotland, the subject is not yet closed.

And so it came to pass that the EU referendum was one of the dirtiest, angriest and most divisive campaigns the country has ever seen. Both sides lied and cajoled and promised and tried to scare people into voting for them. A slogan painted on the side of a bus by the Leave campaign promised that post-Brexit there would be £350 million a week of spare money which could be spent on the NHS – a promise that Leave politicians rapidly distanced themselves from once they’d won.

In the intervening couple of years, much has come to light about dodgy election funds, data analytics, and the raft of falsehoods built by both campaigns, but the simple truth is that Remain lost because it didn’t try hard enough. That was obvious at the time. Remain were quite unprepared for the sheer vehemence of the Leave campaign. And they didn’t expect to lose. Common sense would prevail, they reasoned. The People would do as they were told, as they always had.

I had a suspicion, in the closing days of the referendum campaign, that Leave might just edge it, but I went to bed on the night of the referendum with exit polls predicting a win for Remain and Nigel Farage seeming to concede defeat. The news the next morning was a bit of a shock.

In the aftermath, Cameron resigned, Theresa May was eventually confirmed as Tory leader and ad hoc Prime Minister, a series of frankly incomprehensible ministerial appointments followed – I suspect Boris Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary will baffle historians for quite some time, as will the appointments of David Davis and Liam Fox, a man whose name is often prefaced by the words ‘disgraced former Defence Secretary’.

We were told, at the outset, that leaving the EU would be a piece of piss, that nations around the world would be queuing up to trade with us, that a new life awaited us in the offworld colonies, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. Okay, that last bit is from Blade Runner, but it catches the spirit of what was promised. Britain would be Great again and everything would be joyous.

It’s now eight months until we officially leave the European Union. Since the referendum, Theresa May has called a snap election which she very nearly lost, reducing the healthy majority left behind by Cameron to a point where she had to shackle herself to the DUP in order to get legislation through Parliament, a deal which she almost certainly regretted the moment it was struck. David Davis’s tenure as Brexit Secretary was characterised by a breezy self-confidence and a near-total lack of substance, and every time I see Liam Fox being interviewed on television now he looks utterly lost and out of his depth. Davis eventually quit his job over the government White Paper on leaving the EU; his successor, Dominic Raab, decided to establish his bona fides from the get-go by threatening that if the EU didn’t play ball Britain would withhold the so-called ‘divorce bill’. A few days after he was appointed, he was effectively demoted and Theresa May announced that she would be taking over negotiations personally.

Meanwhile, it seems the government is preparing for the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit by encouraging the stockpiling of food and medicines and Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group – whose anodyne name hides some of the most extreme Tory eurosceptics – conceded recently that it could be fifty years before we know whether Brexit has been good for Britain or not. One does not have to be a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction to find all this slightly alarming.

Leave did not expect to win, and having won, they had no idea what to do next. They’ve been winging it for the past two years, I suspect to the increasing bemusement of the EU. There’s a line in Chris Wood’s ‘Hollow Point’. about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, which goes something like ‘they gave him no instruction that an innocent man would have understood’, and I have a feeling that’s how the EU negotiators have felt for the past couple of years. The clock has been ticking for two years and the British government has only just published the White Paper on what it wants from Brexit – and then promptly shredded it to please the European Research Group. If this is one of the easiest negotiations in history, as it was once characterised, the most difficult one must have been something to see indeed.

The thing is, very little of this changes anything. There are people living in this country who would rather live in a hedge and eat fox turds than remain in the EU. You could tell these people that Brexit would result in a hundred-foot tidal wave of volcanic lava scouring all life from Britain, and they would tell you it’s worth it. As far as they’re concerned, the EU is the bad guy here, bullying us as it has always done, a shady cabal of unelected euro-technocrats feathering their own nests at the expense of hard-working Brits.

Except that’s not quite true. The EU is trying to protect its own interests, as we would in its place. There’s a very real sense of British entitlement in the way we seem to expect the EU to accede to our every demand. If the wheels do come off the whole enterprise – which seems likely at the moment – the utter incompetence of the governent will not be held to blame. It will be the ‘intransigence’ of the EU, which will play into the narrative of the European Research Group.

That’s not to say that the EU are incapable of being utter bastards – their handling of the Greek financial crisis showed that – but in this case there is a legal and political framework in place for a country to leave the European Union, and it’s up to that country to work within that framework. That’s one of the things Leave supporters seem unable to understand: the EU is not going to bend the rules just because we’re British and we want them to, and it is not going to do something which threatens its own structures. The  attitude of the government seems to have been that the EU, faced with the righteous Voice of the British People, would just roll over, no matter what the cost to itself, and there is a continuing subtext of shocked anger to some commentary that these uppity foreigners refuse to do as we ask, damn them.

To be honest, we were never really in the EU in the fullest sense. We negotiated a whole basket of opt-outs and rebates while cherry-picking the bits which suited us. We sit outside Schengen, we were never a member of the currency union. Of all the member states of the EU, we probably retained the most sovereignty while taking as much benefit as we could, and it was still not enough for some. The Ideal Brexit would be just the same, a situation where we were no longer part of any of the EU’s structures but we could still suck to our hearts’ content on the Eurotit, and I’m sorry to disappoint Leave supporters but it just doesn’t work like that and no amount of shouting and stamping your feet and screaming until you’re sick is going to change it.

There is, of course, the nuclear option, the no-deal Brexit. We don’t get what we want and we just throw our toys out of the pram and go our own way. How bad could that be? Well, it could be this bad. You’ll recall that none of this was on the side of a bus. Not that it would have made a lot of difference; the people who voted Leave because of immigration, because of resentment of EU legislation, because they wanted their curved bananas back, would still have voted the same way.

Any time someone tries to point out something like this, they’re shouted down. It’s ‘Project Fear’, it’s the ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘talking down the country’. As if throwing the wholehearted support of every living creature on Britain behind May, Davis, Fox and Johnson would have made them any less incompetent. Just having the temerity to say that Brexit might not be the best thing ever to happen to Britain is enough to get you called a traitor, and worse. Commentators characterise any opposition as ‘anti-democratic’. If you think Brexit is a mistake, you oppose Democracy itself. The whole thing is a bitter, black, shouty farce.

And that’s the lasting effect of Brexit. It hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already made us a meaner, angrier country. And it might get even worse.

So here we are, eight months to go. The EU has effectively killed Theresa May’s Chequers proposal, which was apparently the best thing the government could come up with after two years of infighting, and we’re in freefall again. Nobody knows what to do or what will happen and organisations on both sides of the Channel are making preparations for the worst-case scenario – not because they want it but because in the end it might be the only outcome. Meanwhile, May appears to be trying to perform an end-run on the EU by whistlestopping around Europe trying to drum up support from individual heads of state. Quite what she has to offer in return is unclear; she appears to be entirely out of bargaining chips, both abroad and at home.

Still, blue passports, eh.

Best Books of 2016

Eh, well, everyone seems to be doing lists this year, so I might as well. This is just a reflection of my own personal tastes, and I’ve probably left some books out, so you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it.

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Easily one of the best titles ever. I loved this book. It made me smile.

Dodgers – Bill Beverly. A very, very, very fine thriller, made all the more extraordinary by being Beverly’s debut novel. Essential reading. Seriously, read this book.

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky. The very worthy winner of the Clarke Award this year. Proper ‘core sf’, beautifully conceived and written, and packed with sentient spiders.

Fever City – Tim Baker. Another thriller, and another breathtaking debut novel, this time set round the events of the assassination of JFK. Comes very close to out-Ellroying Ellroy.

The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts. Mindbending and wondrous and very funny. A fabulous, fabulous book. Should have Won Things.

Freedom’s Child – Jax Miller. Miller is going to be a star. You wait and see.

Dominion – Peter McLean. The follow-up to Drake sees the return of Don Drake, ‘Hell’s Hitman’. Easily as gritty, sweary – and that’s very sweary – and as much fun as its predecessor.

Way Down Dark – James Smythe. Very different from The Machine, which I still think is a very considerable work, but easily as good. I’m hoping my life will settle down soon and I can get round to reading the rest of the Australia Trilogy.

Shut Up

I suppose it’s not particularly insightful to note that this has been a grim old year, and depending on the outcome of the US Presidential election it may get even grimmer, but the thing I’ll be taking away from 2016 is that this is the year we were told to shut up.

Specifically, the formulation goes: ‘The People have spoken, now shut up.’ I’ve heard it most often from the Leave camp with relation to the EU Referendum; anyone who expresses disappointment or apprehension about the result is branded a ‘Remoaner’ and told that the People voted to leave the EU and any dissent is sour grapes. I’ve also started seeing it with relation to the election of Jeremy Corbyn – those who express doubts about Labour’s future electability are told, ‘The People have spoken; shut up.’

There’s a long and noble tradition of dissent in this country, and it feels odd to see it being countered with the simple words ‘We won, now shut up.’ Eurosceptics didn’t shut up after the People spoke in the 1975 Referendum and voted to remain in the EEC, and if the Left had taken that advice a great deal of social justice, down the years, would have gone unchallenged.

But perhaps we should just shut up now. The People spoke last year and returned David Cameron’s government with a majority, and perhaps we should shut up about that. When the American People speak and send Donald Trump to the White House in a couple of months, perhaps we should shut up about that.

Perhaps we should all just shut the fuck up.

Europe in Winter

Quite a lot has happened since I finished writing Europe at Midnight. When I handed the book in to the publishers, an EU referendum was still a vague promise, a coalition was still running the country, and Great British Bake Off was still on the BBC. I remember I got my first look at a proof of Midnight at last year’s Clarke Awards do, the day before the general election, the day before we all took what turned out to be the first step into the abyss.

What a difference a year makes. David Cameron is about to become a (very well-off) private citizen, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are no more, the Labour Party is now apparently being directed by Mack Sennett, and we are being led by St Theresa, Our Lady of Brexit.

Meanwhile, Midnight has been well-received, thankfully. I was really worried about how it would go down. I read it again just before publication and it seemed kind of lightweight to me, not as dense or as textured as Autumn and I was sure I’d made a mistake. I’d written it as well as I could, but I thought it sat awkwardly beside its predecessor.

And so here we go again. Europe in Autumn, the book I was basically picking away at now and again as a hobby, is about to spawn a third book. Europe in Winter comes out in about a month and a half, and I have the Doubt again. Is it any good? Well, yes, bits of it are very good, I’m particularly proud of the first chapter; there are a couple of very good gags in there. Does it work, as a book? Just about. Does it sit well alongside Autumn and Midnight? I hope so; I’ve come to realise I genuinely can’t tell.

It’s more of a direct sequel to Autumn than Midnight, but the engine of the plot arises from stuff that happens in Midnight. Rudi is the central character again – one of the things that have surprised me is how popular he seems to be; he’s basically me, or at least we share a worldview, so it’s been odd to discover how much people like him – and Rupert makes a return, along with a cast of new characters.

It’s also been a bit strange to see how much people are looking forward to the book. I’m not used to that and it’s a little bit scary; I sense a weight of expectation and I hope people aren’t disappointed. I worked my tits off on this one, and it wasn’t easy – I only got a sense of what it was about when I was in the last third of writing it – but once it’s in the reader’s hands I can’t do anything else. After having total control over the book for so long, there’s a terrifying feeling of helplessness.

I know I told people to shoot me if I even looked as if I was going to write another Europe book, but there will be one more, Europe at Dawn. Again, because I realised there’s stuff I haven’t tackled in the earlier books. The refugee crisis and its effects on Europe’s southern borders, what I’m starting to see as a growing split between the wealthy countries of the North and the poorer ones of the South, a two-tier Europe. Canals. I can’t believe I overlooked canals in the other books. I plan to throw the fucking kitchen sink at this one. But this will be the last; there’s a limit to how many world-shaking conspiracies a series of novels will stand. Also, I like the idea of a Quartet.

So, here we go again, in a new world, waiting for a new Europe book. It has an absolutely fantastic cover; Clint Langley has done me proud with all the books, and this is no exception. I think it’s a fun book; I don’t think it stands alone the way Midnight does, but it pushes Rudi’s story along and in the process really pisses him off. I’m starting to feel sorry about messing the poor sod about so much; all he really wants to do is cook.

Anyway. Onward. Hope you like the book.

Happy Days

I seem to remember, when the financial crisis broke, that all of a sudden all financial advertising dried up. All the ads for banks, all those ads featuring Carol Vorderman, inviting us to ‘consolidate all your loans into one easy monthly payment’, all those ads for credit cards with stupid names. All gone, seemingly overnight.

It was as if the entire financial industry, having been caught out in the act of fucking us over, had gone into hiding in case we marched on them with flaming torches and sharp agricultural implements. The only ads I can even remember even vaguely associated with the financial services were for insurance, and they might have simply become more obvious because of the lack of anything else.

When bank advertising started to creep back in, I seem to recall that they didn’t focus on overdrafts and loans and mortgages and all the stuff that banks actually do – they attempted to attract customers by emphasising their role in the community, reassuring us how responsible they were. If I remember correctly, there was a series of NatWest ads which featured employees doing voluntary work. Nothing about the bank’s services.

And I was just wondering, after going through all that, how did we get from there to a place where we’re subjected to ads for firms offering loans at rates of up to fifteen hundred percent?

Europe in June 2: June Harder

So, the people have spoken. I don’t agree with what they said, and there are worrying signs that some of them voted to leave the EU without believing we would actually leave. but never mind. The deed is done and we have to get used to it sooner or later, so we might as well do it now.Petitions to have a second referendum are a way of making our dissatisfaction clear, but I seriously doubt there’s any stomach in the Commons, or the country at large, to go through all that again.

The result of the referendum leaves us in an awkward, transitional time. The news is still being digested and debated, the ripples from the decision still spreading out. Where do we go from here?

Well, we’re not going anywhere soon. The formal process for a member leaving the EU is provided by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. There are other ways we could leave, but those would probably involve terms unfavourable to us. Until Article 50 is invoked, nothing is going to happen.

On Friday morning, David Cameron announced that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister and that it would be up to his successor to initiate Article 50 and cope with subsequent negotiations about the terms on which we leave the EU. Myself, I would have pulled the trigger on the exit process at eight o’clock on the morning after the referendum, handed the keys of Number 10 to Boris Johnson, and said, “Right, I’m off on the US lecture circuit; you sort the mess out. Enjoy.” But that’s me. Anyway, nothing is going to happen until we have a new Prime Minister, and that may not be until the Tory Party Conference in October.

So, conceivably, we’ll still be in the EU until the Autumn. For its part, the EU is urging us to shit or get off the pot; they’re eager to get this over as quickly as possible and make the process as punitive as possible, to discourage other members – and there are some who might be thinking about it – having referendums of their own. But it’s up to us to invoke Article 50; for all its bluster, the EU can’t do it for us. We can take our own sweet time.

And our own sweet time is, it seems, exactly what we are going to take. The message coming from the Leave camp yesterday – after all the scare stories and 24-hours-to-save-Britain urgency of the campaign – was “No rush.”

This raises an intriguing possibility. The lawyer and legal writer David Allen Green makes the case for saying that the longer we wait to invoke Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. There is a scenario in which we have voted to leave the EU, but never actually do.

I can actually see this flying. The issue at the bottom of this mess was not our membership of the EU but who controls the Tory Party. Many of the crazier Tory MPs absolutely despise Cameron and Osborne and despise the European Union. The rise of UKIP and anti-immigration feeling in the country led to a situation where Cameron was obliged to put an EU referendum on his most recent election manifesto, or face a leadership challenge which he would almost certainly have lost. It was a gamble with unimaginably high stakes. He thought – as I did – that we would not vote to leave the EU, and we were both wrong.

The Leave camp are in no hurry to initiate negotiations – judging by the looks on the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove yesterday, the general funereal tone of their press statement and the fact that there is a sudden vacuum where they used to be, I think it’s only just beginning to dawn on them what they’ve done.

It’s easy to do stuff in hot blood which we wouldn’t do if we had a bit of time to think about it and consider the consequences, and in David Allen Green’s scenario the longer we wait to trigger Article 50 – three months, probably – the longer the eurosceptics will have to see the consequences, the effects on the pound and on Britain’s standing in world markets. Our credit rating – which George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith et al virtually put the country to the sword to protect – has already been downgraded, and there’s a possibility that they might have to face a second Scottish independence referendum. This stuff concentrates minds.

The referendum was ‘advisory’ in nature – it has no force in law and the government is within its rights to ignore the result. In practical terms, this would be difficult to pull off and a Tory government which did that would take a beating at the next election. But it’s just conceivable that the eurosceptic wing of the party might try. They already have one of their goals – control of the party – and a deferred Article 50 might be a useful club to wave at the EU in any future negotiations. It could, in a certain light, under certain circumstances, look an attractive option. David Cameron gambled that he could survive; the eurosceptics might too.

In the meantime, after all the bluster about taking back control from unelected representatives in Brussels, we would wind up with an unelected Prime Minister, which is the kind of delicious irony that only the British could come up with.

And speaking, just briefly, of unelected representatives, a word on Nigel Farage. This puffed-up, self-important bullfrog of a man is not an MP. His party only has one MP at Westminster. It cannot, and never has been able to, deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. For all his bluster, for all his publicity stunts, he has no actual political power at all, and I’ve never understood why he’s afforded such weight.

However, by some occult conjunction of circumstance and opportunism, he and his party have actually altered the course of British history, and that is one of the many things I find so baffling and worrying about this whole sorry mess.

I could address what the referendum result means for the Labour party, but there seems no point. It’s going through a period of self-harm the like of which I’ve not seen outside a Clive Barker novel, and that’s going to continue whatever happens in the wider world. Personally, I thought Jeremy Corbyn – not the biggest fan of the EU – was at best a grudging participant in the Remain campaign. Whether that had any bearing at all on the final result, I can’t say. Whatever the Labour party is going to do, I hope they do it soon, because in the days and weeks and months ahead – whether we do actually leave the EU or not – we’re going to need a strong, effective Opposition.

So, here we are, on the White Cliffs, our toes dangling over the edge. Do we jump now? Do we wait? I’m angry and disappointed with the result of the referendum. I was angry and disappointed with the result of the last general election, but this is different. Deeper and more visceral. It’s going to take a while to process. Interesting times.