Milford Writers’ Conference 2015

Last month I attended the week-long Milford Writers’ Conference for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers in beautiful north Wales. I was asked to write a reflection on it for the Milford website which I’m reposting here…

Milford Group, September 2015 L - R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

Milford Group, September 2015 L – R: Kari Sperring; Ben Jeapes, Jacey Bedford, Liz Williams, Dave Clements, David Turnbull, Val Nolan, Jackie Hatton, Tiffani Angus, Chris Butler, Sue Oke, Matt Colborn, Pauline Morgan (writing as Pauline Dungate), Heather Lindsley, Gus Smith.

I gave serious thought to withdrawing from the Milford Writers’ Conference this year. I had, only ten days or so before the workshop was to begin, been appointed to a new job as lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Thus I was in the middle of organising my move across the Irish Sea, wrapping-up prior commitments back in Ireland, and getting to grips with the requirements and responsibilities which the new position entailed. I thought that perhaps a week at Milford would be too much considering everything else that was going on but, standing outside the Trigonos centre after the first day, watching satellites and meteors crisscross the north Welsh sky and already feeling the benefits of the intensive critiquing sessions, I knew I had made the correct decision to attend.

Some of this year’s participants I knew well (Tiffani Angus and I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop together in 2009; Heather Lindsley and I have knew each other through conventions for several years) while other such as Jacey Bedford and Susan Oke I had met briefly at cons and so forth. The majority of participants were new to me but, regardless, everyone here shared the experience of being a published Science Fiction or Fantasy writer, as well as the desire to further hone their creative practice via peer feedback and constructive criticism. No surprise so that friendships and professional contacts were quickly made during our week workshopping each other’s writing, dining together on the wonderful Trigonos food (yes, its reputation is well deserved!), and sharing a few drinks in the library each evening.

I am therefore pleased to report that my first Milford experience lived up to the conference’s reputation. Participants were not just excellent writers but highly perceptive readers of the work of others. The group functioned as a microcosm of our potential audience and was often illustrative of the different kinds of readers which one’s work will ultimately encounter (particular distinctions were evident between, say, those who want overt connections made for them in a story and those wishing to piece things together themselves, or those who prioritise scientific realism over poetic licence and vice versa). Many of the observations made have stayed with me in the weeks since the conference concluded. For instance, when our discussion wasn’t orbiting lagrangian points (which appeared in three stories, including mine; and luckily Dave Clements was on hand to address issues of physics) we often found ourselves on the topic of trees and their symbolism for writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As Kari Sperring put it, in what is perhaps my favourite remark from Milford 2015: “Trees bind time together. They run between the past and the future”.

For indeed, just as important as the critiquing workshops were these kinds of meandering group conversations over lunch or dinner. On any given day there was intellectual stimulation to be found in everything from the histories of Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism (thanks, Matt Colborn) to the fact that “cows got really, really big in the 1700s” (that one was Tiffani, fresh off four years of horticultural and agricultural research for her PhD). The informal stretches of Milford thus offered opportunities for the knowledge (and, for that matter, the particular nerdishness) of individual participants to shine through and, in many cases, spark ideas in others. Among the new-to-me information unspooled over the course of the week was an explanation of the mechanism whereby cannibalism basically leads to the same problems as BSE and the fact that the machine for making Pringles was invented by author Gene Wolfe.

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While I missed the Wednesday sessions (on account of a staff meeting at my new job some two hours down the coast), I was back in time for the Milford AGM that evening. I found this to be a mature and meaningful discussion of just how the conference intends to go forward, how it aims to attract participants from a wider range of backgrounds, and how the organisers take care to ensure that the event always ring-fences slots for new attendees.

Equally, the “Marketing Evening” – a discussion of what venues the participants thought the pieces workshopped throughout the week might be best submitted to – served to underline one of the great selling points of Milford: the pooling of knowledge and experience from a variety of published authors at various stages of their careers. The discussion of agents and editors was frank and beneficial, as was our discourse about both the “hot new markets” and the shifting moods of more established publications. The Marketing Evening was followed the next day by a group field trip to nearby Portmeirion, famous (as I’m sure you all know!) as the setting for the classic 1960s TV seriesThe Prisoner. This was a delight (I’ve always wanted to visit) even if it wasn’t strictly part of the workshop (!).

Of course Milford is not for everybody (I’m thinking of the kind of author – and we all know one – who reacts poorly to, for instance, a bad review; which is to say the unprofessional author). While robust Milford critiques are softened with an apologetic offering of sorts (a so-called “chocolate review”) they are also to be expected because the point of the exercise is to dismantle stories and make them better. If Milford was nothing more than a dozen people telling you that you are already great then it would be worthless. Instead it is a serious undertaking for authors who wish to improve their craft. As a writer and, for that matter, as a third level writing instructor, I found it an extremely valuable experience (and, if nothing else, it introduced me to the term “anti-ditto” which I have already begun using in my own workshops!).

I will definitely go back to Milford. Hopefully I will be more prepared for the heavy reading load on the next occasion (you know, by virtue of not moving my entire life to another country at the same time!) but, for now, I have returned with a wealth of meaningful feedback to fuel the revision of my submitted story. I imagine my fellow participants are all hunkered down in similar rewrites at present. I can’t wait to see where the work which they shared eventually appears in print.

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Whatever happened to Seán O’Faoláin?

Seán O’Faoláin: Literature, Inheritance, and the 1930s
Paul Delaney
Irish Academic Press; €25
Review: Val Nolan

In his lifetime, Seán O’Faoláin published eight volumes of short stories, four novels, three travel books, six biographies, a play, a memoir, as well as critical studies of long and short form fiction. At various times his work was both banned and a set text on school curricula. Scholars speak of him in revered tones. He was editor of, as Roy Foster puts it, “that essential journal” The Bell while, for Diarmaid Ferriter, he is one of Ireland’s “most influential writers”. He is also, nowadays, almost entirely out of print.

How did this situation come to be? Well, by his own admission O’Faolain wrote too much while, by the judgment of critics, he wrote too unevenly. Paul Delaney, a Trinity lecturer in Irish literature, addresses both concerns in this monograph as he attempts to demystify the “uncertain subject” of an author “whose work is often not read or deliberately misread despite his apparent canonicity”.

Delaney takes a particular interest in O’Faoláin’s writing during the 1930s, “a decade of international volatility and fear” which saw the rise “of one of O’Faoláin’s greatest but most ambivalent influences, Eamon de Valera”. It is a fruitful focus for the volume which allows great scope in showing O’Faoláin as a “deliberately interventionist” penman concerned with “exposing expedient myths” as well as “recording uncomfortable truths”. And certainly there were enough of both of those going around in 1930s Ireland.

While Delaney believes O’Faoláin’s “true métier as a creative artist was the short story” he does acknowledge that this was not the author’s only narrative vehicle. Thus this volume is split between interrogations of O’Faoláin’s work as a biographer and discussion of his earliest fiction. The texts examined range from the Corkman’s two biographies of de Valera (1933 and 1939) as well as books on Constance Markievicz (1934), and the still well regarded King of the Beggars about Daniel O’Connell (1938), all the way to his controversial novel Bird Alone (1936) and A Purse of Coppers (1936), a volume of stories intensely focused on the “repressive and power-driven” Catholic Church.

This bipartite division proves an interesting approach. Scholars might ordinarily have chosen to examine either the biographies or the fiction but Delaney, in acknowledging both but prioritising neither, draws the reader’s attention to the intriguing stylistic similarities between O’Faoláin’s dual modes. What becomes clear on the one hand is the degree to which the stories are an effort to construct “a narrative of the history of modern Ireland” while, on the other, the ostensibly objective biographies function as non-literary fictions, stories all told rather than shown.

Consider for instance the use of a genealogy in the 1933 historical novel A Nest of Simple Folk compared to the absence of “the many elementary features of good scholarship (such as footnotes, page references for quotations, and bibliographies)” in almost all O’Faoláin’s biographies. Both modes meanwhile foreground the importance of “inherited memories” and both declare their status as published texts with “references to questions of structure, genre, and writing,” or with “explanatory subtitles”.

Accordingly, the great achievement of Delaney’s volume is to place his subject’s work within an appropriate historical and historiographical context. O’Faoláin, he says, had a tendency to view Irish history as an exercise of “pronounced theatricality”. The independence years for him were a “struggle for personal as well as national and generational autonomy”. A veteran of the War of Independence, he took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War but his activities were limited to propaganda and some light bomb-making, experiences he would draw upon for his first collection of stories Midsummer Night Madness (1932).

Delaney’s investigation of the unease and sense of transience found these linked stories is a highlight of the volume, the point at which his drive to contextualise meshes best with his textual analysis. Characters in the collection, he points out, “are often depicted as on the run, as they flee from enemy soldiers and a law which is alien and unjust, but also from a part of themselves which has been sacrificed or put to one side”. The reader can immediately see connections with the “stress on transitional periods” throughout O’Faoláin’s many biographies.

Never hagiographic, the volume repeatedly draws our attention to the way O’Faoláin slyly used his re-writing of the past – just another story to the author – as a means of commenting on his present in terms of both events and ideologies. O’Faoláin’s fictions therefore emerge here less as slices of life and more as reflections of his thinking in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is especially true in his reproaches to naturalism and his wariness of modernism, as well as the manner by which he demanded realism include a powerful sense of social commitment

Of course Delaney himself is primarily writing for a scholarly readership and so the general reader may at times find his style a little dry. That being said, he largely avoids off-putting, jargon-heavy academese, and many will find his discussion of the biographies – particularly O’Faoláin’s shifting opinion of de Valera – to be of interest. By contrast, however, the chapters of literary criticism unpacking the novels and short stories, insightful though they are, will likely appeal to a narrower audience.

Very much in keeping with mainstream critical discourse, Delaney does well to, if not slice, then at least untangle the Gordian Knot of his subject’s reputation. O’Faoláin, we are reminded, was all things to all readers: “a liberal pluralist, an opinionated chauvinist, a proto-revisionist, and a nascent postcolonial critic”. Today, however, he is mostly an object lesson in how a highly regarded author can simply vanish from public consciousness. Delaney’s book may not fully explain the latter, and occasionally it leaves the reader to connect the dots themselves, but it is exactly the kind of spark required to reignite scholarly interest in this neglected writer’s work.

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Down and out in Dublin and Poland

Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner

Greetings, HeroGreetings, Hero
Aiden O’Reilly
Honest Publishing; £13.99
Review: Val Nolan

Balancing its outward perspective with an interrogatory approach to the secrets hidden in the human heart and mind, the fifteen stories of Aiden O’Reilly’s very fine debut offer the reader a series of candid dispatches from a changing Europe. It is a volume defined by a sense of unease. The characters here are linked by their incredulity towards official narratives; belief in any “central source of validation” is forever beyond their reach. They are stateless not simply in their wanderings but in their unsettled mentalities.

In his opening pieces, O’Reilly depicts a generation of young people drifting across the continent. His protagonists are decoupled from family and nation and live their lives through chance encounters, drunken hook-ups, and missed connections. Yes they suffer disappointments but, at heart, they are optimistic creatures of agency. Youth emboldens them. They make decisions and they follow them through.

As a reformed mathematician, O’Reilly has a clear affinity for puzzles which colours many of the stories here. The interactions between his men and women play out like games for which we must intuit the rules as they progress. Fragmentary pieces like ‘Contempt’ encourage participatory reading. Greetings, Hero is thus a book which rewards attention as much as it demands it.

This is especially true of the collection’s inventive middle offerings. In ‘Roman Empires’ one encounters a belief that the “malicious influence of the Romans continues unabated, as strong as ever it was”. Indeed, some people even want the Empire to come back. It is a short but intriguing examination of history as, at best practical eccentricity, at worst, aggressive “lies and propaganda”. It is also the most Murakami-esque of the stories here (flavoured with a dash of Philip K. Dick’s late insistence on the secret continuance of the Roman Empire’s power).

Another standout begins, “They have taken my parents to the re-education camp”. The mother and father in question are relics of a religious age buttressed by corporal punishment and homophobia; they hold ideas which “offend us all”. It is a pointed conceit yet, given the story’s length, it does not wear out its welcome. ‘Self-Assembly’ meanwhile tackles – in a very literal fashion – the question of women being seen as objects by men. The slippery reality of the story perturbs the reader in a manner which has its closest analogue among contemporary Irish short fiction in Mike McCormack’s scrutiny of the relationship between philosophy and technology.

Yet it is in the long central novella, from which the collection as a whole draws its title, that O’Reilly’s overarching project is at its clearest. Its protagonist is an English tutor at a small Polish university negotiating bars, bureaucracy, and the challenges of international friendship. The story has a strong immersive quality in its first half while in its second, which focuses on a return to Dublin, it combines this with an astute depiction of multi-cultural life in a Celtic Tiger Ireland of “fat bastard businessmen”.

Winding through all of this is the enigmatic presence of “Silent Michal”. In his search for a way to express himself, Michal serves as the totem figure for O’Reilly’s cast. All are seeking better ways to articulate who they are. The barriers they face are emotional, are economic, but more than anything they are linguistic. They reveal Greetings, Hero as a book about modes of expression, about how they can be changed by money or by love. After all, it is surely no accident that the final story here is titled ‘Words Spoken’. Readers seeking fresh, prickly fiction should therefore listen closely.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on December 6th, 2014.

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Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Annual Collection

Year's Best Science FictionThis week sees the publication of Gardner Dozois’s thirty-first annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). I’m honoured to say that this year’s selection includes my Sturgeon-nominated story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ alongside work from the likes of Ian R. MacLeod, Sunny Moraine, the late Jay Lake, Geoff Ryman, Karl Bunker, Carrie Vaughn, Greg Egan, Allen M. Steele, Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Martin L. Shoemaker, Jake Kerr, Sandra McDonald, Michael Swanwick, Stephen Baxter, Alexander Jablokov, Neal Asher, Lavie Tidhar, Sean McMullen, Ian McDonald, Melissa Scott, Brendan DuBois, and James Patrick Kelly (I’ve previously blogged a full breakdown of the contents here).

From the blurb: ‘The world of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world in the year’s best short stories. This venerable collection brings together award winning authors and masters of the field such as Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Damien Broderick, Elizabeth Bear, Paul McAuley and John Barnes. And with an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans.’

Weighing in at 750 pages, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty First Annual Collection can be purchased at all good bookshops or direct from the publisher here.

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Like a Hand on the Shoulder…

Always a pleasure to engage with the work of the late John McGahern. Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner on the newest edition of his Collected Stories

John McGahern - Collected Stories

John McGahern – Collected Stories

Collected Stories
John McGahern
Faber; £10.99
Review: Val Nolan

Even in death, John McGahern remains Ireland’s greatest living writer. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but then, as an author known for decade-long silences, it does not feel as if he has truly left us. We might have expected a new novel from him by now if he were still alive but, in place of that, comes this reminder that he is in fact gone. It provokes sadness, yes, but also gratitude for the powerful work which he gifted us in the time available to him.

Famously, McGahern believed that Ireland was less a coherent state than a mosaic of ‘little republics called families’. Something similar can be said of his Collected Stories. It is a volume which exceeds the sum of its varied contents; a selection which both echoes and enhances McGahern’s long form prose in terms of its symbolism and its use of local reference. The stories here speak to the author’s working through – or, to borrow the title of his second collection, perhaps Getting Through – of the themes and architectures which have ultimately come to define him.

But McGahern’s stories are far more than exercises in narrative style or structure; they are masterpieces in their own right. ‘Korea’ surely ranks with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’ as one of the greatest Irish short stories. ‘Eddie Mac’ and ‘The Conversion of William Kirkwood’ deliver fresh angles on the well-worn ground of Anglo-Irish decline. The striking but atypical ‘Peaches’ plumbs McGahern’s own autobiography while ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ unravels the impact of the Irish emigrant experience.

Of course, there are differences between this volume and the previous edition, styled Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories and chosen by McGahern before his death. The contents here return to those of the 1992 Collected Stories and so, while the fine valedictory offerings ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’ are absent, a number of key pieces are reinstated. These include not just the Spain-set ‘Peaches’, but also ‘Coming into his Kingdom’, in which a young boy discovers the adult world, ‘Doorways’, an urbane, and at times satirical novella of romantic entanglement, as well as the haunting ‘The Beginning of an Idea’.

The result is a stronger collection in that it presents more facets of McGahern, especially the work of the 1970s and 1980s. It foregrounds his outsider perspective at the time, something which allowed him to articulate the harshness of Ireland in a way few others have achieved. Indeed, it is debateable whether McGahern would have produced such striking short fiction had he not been sacked from his teaching job at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and forced into exile after publishing The Dark in 1965.

And yet McGahern forgave the Church. Although he ceased to be a believer, his maturity – evidenced by his Memoir and by his decorum in general – makes him a very Christian writer at a time when the clergy were embarrassing themselves or, worse, actively harming the vulnerable. The complex relationship he developed with Irish Catholicism is apparent when one compares the sympathetic portraits of priests in stories like ‘The Wine Breath’ to his uncompromising critiques of the nation’s mid-century theocracy in pieces such as ‘The Recruiting Officer’.

What would McGahern have made of the ruinous state of the country today? Of the economic crash? Of the clerical sex-abuse scandals? In a way it doesn’t matter. ‘It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing more,’ he once said, and when he broached such subjects in his work it was out of an interest in the way external forces squeezed the lives carved out by Everyman and Everywoman figures.

It is therefore the privilege of the reader and the scholar to explore his life and work anew with every passing year. For instance, Peter Guy, writing in Studies, has ably read McGahern’s fiction through the lens of the Murphy Report. Denis Sampson has recently published a volume on the author’s early, formative years and the influences which led to his fiction. Meanwhile academics such as Antoinette Quinn and David Malcolm have given detailed attention to the stories collected here.

Writers too continue to look to McGahern in an effort to emulate his credible depiction of Ireland’s conflicted heart and tortured soul. As he told Sampson in 1979, ‘Fiction always has to be believable, I mean that you have to convince the reader that it happened’. A corollary, perhaps, is that life is not just misery; life is going on despite the misery, as the characters of ‘Crossing the Line’ and ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ do. Though that said, the central, Chekhovian third of this volume can be hard going.

Those heavier pieces contribute to the impression that McGahern’s writing is mostly concerned with the old and the dying and the dead, but in fact young people predominate throughout the Collected Stories. Likewise, work such as ‘Gold Watch’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ is downright optimistic when compared to McGahern’s early novels. Sex, in particular, is acknowledged as an essential part of life. Its musk infuses the figuring-out of relationships in the twin vignettes of ‘Along the Edges’, the bittersweet comedy of ‘My Love, My Umbrella’, and the dagger pangs of want which stab at the heart of ‘Sierra Leone’ amongst others.

Thus these are stories about bodies as much as about characters. There is a physicality to the work collected here, and the timeless vitality of McGahern’s writing derives from the impact of just this weight upon the reader. The pieces here often arrive violently – Anne Enright has rightly called them ‘the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ – but they also linger long after the initial jolt. They lodge imaginative shrapnel, slivers of difficult choices, deep within the mind of the reader.

Such an effect ensures that the Collected Stories is less a time-capsule to be sealed and buried than it is a box of vivid memories to be opened and experienced again and again. The book possesses an instructional quality, this is true, but it never becomes didactic. Instead the pieces here are reassuring like a hand on the shoulder. They comprise a volume in which pragmatism is spiked with ambition, pleasure is tempered by realism, and out of which a unique vision of an Ireland in transition emerges. Reissued eight years after his death, McGahern’s Collected Stories presents us with the opportunity not for reassessment – his reputation is secure – but for reengagement. It is the work of a writer who will no doubt live forever.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, “If it was Just Th’ol Book”, published in
Irish Studies Review.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 July 2014 (Weekend, pp.24-25).

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Now Available: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eight

Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy - Vol 8I’m pleased to say that Johnathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (volume eight) has just been published by Solaris. The anthology includes my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ (shortlisted for this year’s Sturgeon award) along with work from K J Parker, Neil Gaiman, Yoon Ha Lee, Joe Abercrombie, Sofia Samatar, Greg Egan, E Lily Yu, Geoff Ryman, M Bennardo, Ted Chiang, Ramez Naam, Priya Sharma, M John Harrison, Richard Parks, Lavie Tidhar, Thomas Olde Heuvelt,  James Patrick Kelly, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Eleanor Arnason, Ian R Macleod,  Charlie Jane Anders, An Owomoyela, Karin Tidbeck, Madeline Ashby, Caitlín R Kiernan, Robert Reed, and Ian Mcdonald (I have previously blogged a more complete breakdown of the contents here).

To quote the cover: “From the inner realms of humanity to the far reaches of space, these are the science fiction and fantasy tales that are shaping the genre and the way we think about the future. Multi-award winning editor Jonathan Strahan continues to shine a light on the very best writing, featuring both established authors and exciting new talents. Within you will find twenty-eight incredible tales, showing the ever growing depth and diversity that science fiction and fantasy continues to enjoy. These are the brightest stars in our firmament, lighting the way to a future filled with astonishing stories about the way we are, and the way we could be.

You can order a copy from Solaris online here or pick one up at all good bookshops.

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‘Diving into the Wreck’ published in Interzone

The relevant pages of Interzone #252

Two relevant pages from Interzone #252

I’m happy to say that my story ‘Diving into the Wreck’ has just been published in the current (May 2014)  issue of Interzone (#252) accompanied by a beautiful painting by Wayne Haag.

This is a near-future story about an exo-archaeologist searching for the remains of the Eagle module on the Moon, the actual capsule in which Armstrong and Aldrin travelled to and from the lunar surface (no, we don’t know where its ascent stage is). In the process he is forced to confront his feelings about the death and legacy of his wife, an historian of the Space Age who believed that some things should remain mysteries.

There’s a lot of me in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. The settings range from the hills of west Limerick above where I grew up, to the University of California at San Diego where I was part of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, to an apartment overlooking the shores of Galway Bay where I lived while writing the story. And the moon, of course; the same moon that watches over all those places and has for so long fueled my interest in astronauts and their adventures.

The story’s title is borrowed from the well-known Adrienne Rich poem about the past, about the power and importance of our personal narratives, and about ‘the wreck of obsolete myths,’ in Margaret Atwood’s words (The New York Times Book Review, 1973). It seemed a good fit for a story about recollection and the value of modern myths in the era of space exploration, especially given the characters’ belief in the necessity of understanding ‘the old stories before embarking on a journey to change them’ (as Judith McDaniel has written of Rich’s poem; Reconstituting the World, 1978).

Interzone #252 also contains stories by Neil Williamson, Katharine E.K. Duckett, Oliver Buckram, Claire Humphrey, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, along with Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Williamson and the usual book, cinema, and DVD reviews. The issue can be purchased via TTA Press (and they, in turn, can be followed via Twitter here).

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