In “Staying Behind,” by Ken Liu, the majority of the Earth’s population has uploaded their minds to a higher digital plane, leaving a bloody, battered body. The Uploaded, the dead, keep trying to steal the children of those who chose to stay behind. Read more »
This collection by Maureen F. McHugh tours the world, with stops in a variety of settings that have been subjected to or are in the middle of some of cataclysmic event of a supernatural, natural, or manmade kind. Six of the nine stories are reprints, the remaining three make their first appearance in this compendium published by Small Beer Press. Read more »
Tor’s offerings for August include three pieces, one long and two short, which lean more towards science fiction rather than fantasy. The fourth, excerpted from a collection, is purely fantastic. Read more »
From welcoming gardens, to famous musicians, to wolf men and crow men and exotic maids, the nine stories in this issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet are tied together by unreliable narrators and things that are not as they seem.
With Charles off to World Fantasy Con (as the first recipient of our World SF Travel Fund), and my own general moving about, it seems sensible to take a short break from the blog. So there won’t be any updates for the next week or so. Can’t say we don’t deserve a break!
However, we’re also busy on making some changes to the blog, expanding several areas and taking on new people. We’re at the stage of working out the arrangements, so I can’t say anything definite yet, but I hope that, when we come back, it would be in a larger, expanded capacity that will see more original material on the blog as well as a restart of the fiction section.
Thanks for your patience!
If you’re interested in finding out what’s happening in the Chinese science fiction field, you can check out Chinese Science Fiction’s latest newsletter for news. The newsletter is presented in both English and Chinese. Here’s an excerpt:
Second XINGYUN Awards
The Second XINGYUN Awards closed nominations on August 16 and commenced the voting phase on September 1. To increase exposure, voting is taking place on three websites. The awards will also conduct a “XINGYUN Forum” around the theme “Chinese SF in the Three Body Era.” A new mobile platform has been made available to handle mobile rights for World Chinese Science Fiction Association members. The awards, forum, and member convention will take place on November 12 inChengdu.
Lavie Tidhar is currently preoccupied with urgent matters, but you can listen to him in the latest episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show.
Writing genre fiction in South Africa
S.L. Grey (Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz)
The other day at a literary festival event (one of the rare occasions when both halves of S.L. Grey have been trundled out in public in the same room) the panel was asked whether South Africa should have its own genre imprint. The audience was made up of some of South Africa’s very loyal SFFH fans, and we think they expected the answer, ‘Yes, of course, it’s a scandal that there isn’t a dedicated genre imprint in South Africa.’ But we and fellow panellists, Lauren Beukes and Tom Learmont, all agreed that there shouldn’t be. The market in South Africa is simply too small to sustain one.
There’s no particular reason to have a dedicated imprint selling local science fiction, fantasy and horror. There’s still very little original novel-length SFFH coming out of South Africa, although it’s clear from District 9 (an example of South African SFF idiosyncrasy which is reaching its retirement date) and Lauren’s marvellous Moxyland and Zoo City, that there is a potential audience for them. There is a very loyal and fanatical SFFH fanbase in South Africa, which devours whatever SFFH it can lay its hands on, and most of this is British and American. Louis worked in a bookshop for years and remembers the round-the-corridor queues at a Terry Pratchett signing, compared with the embarrassing no-show at a signing by Graham Swift who had just that year won the Booker Prize.
Zoo City and Moxyland were published first in South Africa by Jacana, a publisher known for choosing leftfield novels of interest to them. ‘We publish what we like’ is their tagline, more than a nod to the title of murdered struggle icon Steve Biko’s posthumously collected writings, I Write what I Like. Jacana is not making a great deal of money.
It was barely a decision for us to submit The Mall overseas and bypass South African publishing. We had written a mainstream horror novel which we wanted traditionally published rather than going the self-publishing or online routes. As far as we knew, no general trade publisher in South Africa had published a South African horror novel before and we thought very briefly about the incredulous responses we would get from local publishers, before submitting it to Corvus. We would be lucky to sell a thousand copies in South Africa, we thought, not a compelling prospect for an industry that makes most of its money on sport, current affairs, motivational and cookery books. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Penguin South Africa who distribute The Mall in South Africa, The Mall has had wonderfully enthusiastic coverage on South African blogs, and a few South African newspaper reviews: not bad for a debut horror novel and one of the advantages of this small market which is top-heavy on writers and reviewers but a little short on readership. Understandably, most South African media’s not quite sure whether space on a South African horror novel will interest its audience.
Penguin South Africa has also been doing a wonderful job promoting Sarah’s other alter ego, Lily Herne (with her daughter Savannah Lotz), whose Deadlands young-adult zombie series they publish. They’ve been getting her decent mainstream media coverage and great exposure in stores, complete with dump bins and posters. Their willingness to push genre fiction into the press and the shop windows is admirable. The Deadlands experience shows that certain South African publishers like Penguin South Africa are actively looking for a commercial genre success and are willing to put some money into it. But it certainly is not enough to warrant an entire imprint. Even better that Deadlands is a lead title on a general list, rather than being stuck in a SFFH ghetto where only dedicated fans will look.
Penguin SA also publishes Sarah’s other work, her crime novels, and this is where South Africa certainly has a burgeoning industry. Crime fiction has grown incredibly in the past decade, with writers like Margie Orford, Mike Nicol, Roger Smith and Jassy Mackenzie enjoying international publication. Crime novels by Andrew Brown and Sifiso Mzobe have won the Sunday Times Award, the country’s major literary award, in recent years. Umuzi, one of the country’s foremost literary imprints, part of the Random House Struik stable, publishes Nicol and Mackenzie among other crime writers when they have not considered commercial SFFH. It’s an interesting and open question: what is the difference between crime and SFFH in South Africa? Why is crime readily published by South African houses and not SFFH? The same could be asked about women’s commercial fiction, another genre struggling gamely for a foothold in South African publishing.
The answer lies, to a great extent, in the subject matter. South African crime fiction is set squarely in South Africa and reflects and transforms South African realities in fiction’s magical, cathartic and powerful way. A lot of the SFFH produced in South Africa is quite generic, set in fantasy neverlands or in the States or steeped in an amalgam of already-written locales and tropes. While some of this work still has great merit, it is South Africanness – a broad and massively disparate range of experiences – that often sets the best, most notable, of our writing apart.
South African writers still suffer from ‘cultural cringe’, the idea – derived from the time when we were the pariahs of the world, caught in the past and in cultural isolation by that bizarre retrograde apartheid government – that if it’s South African, it’s not good enough, it embarrassingly falls short of international standards, it’s not world class. So many young writers, who start out as fans of SFFH from the States and Britain, think that to write well is to emulate the styles of those international writers they admire. Many South African readers themselves still deliberately avoid South African novels because they preconceive them as heavy, guilt-ridden and boringly political, and prefer to escape into realities that aren’t so close to home. This prejudice misses the fact that so much South African writing, past, current, ‘genre’ or ‘literary’, is inventive, challenging and entertaining. It’s all an awful internal PR job concocted out of cultural cringe and bad choices for school setworks. It doesn’t help that South African fiction, be it literary, genre or mainstream, is so often lumped together and relegated to its own ‘SA Fiction’ ghetto in many of our local chain book stores. It’s as if booksellers are sending the message that South African fiction isn’t worthy of rubbing shoulders with say, Steig Larsson, Stephen King or David Mitchell, or that it needs remedial attention to compete.
Any writer wants to be published as widely as possible, and aspirant writers often think they have no chance of being published in the rest of the world if they write about South Africa. The international success of Zoo City and the interest in The Mall reminds us, as the canon of South Africa’s literary laureates has already proven, that the opposite is true: that our exotic, unique South African setting can make our writing stand out from the crowd. Then we need to back up that slight competitive edge with top-quality writing. This is what gets South African crime writers on international shelves, and we hope it encourages South African SFFH writers to write what they like, not what they think they should write.
An Interview with S.L. Grey
By Harry Markov
HM: I’ve read the majority of your interviews over the Internet to get a better of sense of what has been asked and try to outdo that. You’ve shared that your combined hatred for malls gave birth to “The Mall.” What about malls pushes your buttons?
S: Basically the fakeness and sameness of them all. Fake lighting, fake people (mannequins), fake music etc. And underneath all this artifice, the bare corridors and storage rooms that are the heart and soul of the mall. Louis took me behind the scenes of his favorite mall when I visited him in Joburg, and it creeped me out.
L: I don’t really mind malls. I live in Johannesburg and, despite our great weather, our city’s pastime is going to malls on the weekends because we don’t have any beaches or mountains or rivers to take the kids to. When I was a student I worked in a bookshop in a mall, though, and that gave me a different angle on malls. I got to see the back end.
HM: It’s been established that Louis wrote Daniel’s and Sarah wrote Rhoda’s chapters, while communication between the two of you happened via e-mail. In your interviews you mention how that worked for you, but I have to ask, didn’t procrastination hijack your e-mail threads into non-writing territory?
S: We’d occasionally go off on a tangent and talk crap, but the fact that I knew Louis was waiting for my chapter and vice-versa meant that procrastination and gossip was kept to a minimum, which was a new experience for me. I’m usually quite happy to be distracted and arse around when I’m writing – I think most writers are the same!
L: I also like to talk nonsense, but I reach a threshold pretty quickly. E-mail does work for us, because we generally stick to our point and purpose.
HM: Janet van Eeden likens “The Mall” to a consumerism fueled Alice in Wonderland. I can almost agree. To me “The Mall” is the twisted cousin of “Through the Looking Glass,” where everything is opposite. The ideal of plastic beauty is substituted with one of mutilation. Scars and amputations arouse; shoppers are royalty entitled to everything in the mall and money is not even mentioned. It’s obvious that you satirize consumerism and materialism, but I’d like to ask for your full intentions with this setting, the motivations left unspoken and known only to you.
S: Consumerism and advertising are based on lies or half-truths – airbrushed models, empty slogans that really mean nothing (‘because you’re worth it’, ‘Just do it’ etc), and its all designed to get people to buy a load of crap that they don’t actually need. We wanted to strip this away and peer behind this façade. In The Mall’s world, models aren’t airbrushed, they’re skinny sickly anorexics, Botox and plastic surgery are taken to the max, and slogans tell the truth. I think The Mall’s ‘reality’ is actually less disturbing than the one we deal with everyday; at least it’s honest.
L: I honestly didn’t have any broad political intentions. For me, I always focus on the specific characters and on how events affect them. For me, that’s a key strength of fiction – it brings political generalities down to a personal, affecting level.
HM: Your novel explores the conflict ‘reality versus irreality’. The monster in the halls in the back of the mall, the under-mall itself and whether what Dan and Rhoda experienced was real or delusional. Is this an intentional mind game?
S: I guess we were playing with the concept of reality which is slightly different for everyone. It’s up to the reader to decide if they want to buy into (scuse the pun) the downside mall and the journey Dan and Rhoda take to reach it. I hope they do.
L: We do like to mess with your mind.
HM: The remarkable thing about “The Mall” is the unorthodox direction the plot adopts. With a ‘hero seeking escape’ plot-line, the escape would be the objective, the prize and not the stop in the middle of the road. What prompted you to explore the story beyond this initial plot.
S: We were adamant that we wanted to look at what happens after the traditional ‘happily – or unhappily- ever after’ ending. I don’t think this is explored enough in horror fiction or movies, or if it is, it tends to be in the form of an epilogue. We put our characters though a series of bizarre and sometimes horrific experiences and it made sense to look at how this had impacted on their lives and personalities. It was the most challenging section of the novel to write.
L: Throughout the writing, we wanted to keep our characters grounded in reality, despite their bizarre circumstances. We wanted the reader to engage with the story and ask, “What would I do if this actually happened to me?” Exploring the after-effects of the events was part of that psychological realism. I was very glad that Sarah wanted to go that route because that style is much more my writing comfort zone.
HM: Reading “The Mall” I kept thinking about the dimension of horror and fear. Pop culture has tied ‘horror’ to scream queens and cheap scares. What are the dimensions of horror for you?
S: I think there is horror to be found in the everyday. A subtle warping of reality, where the benign and seemingly normal is twisted, is far scarier than zombies or vampires or mythical creatures. Of course, true horror comes in the 1.am phone call, the car accident, sudden illness and life’s randomness.
L: Absolutely. I don’t need to make up monsters to frighten me. The thought of my family getting hurt in an accident or an attack is enough to keep me awake.
HM: Most chapters in the book end on a sort of ‘uh oh, what will we do now note.’ From your interviews, I see that these are challenges that your threw each other to write the characters out of complete peril. Was there ever a dead-end in the earlier drafts, which really did end it for the characters?
S: We did plan for Dan’s ending to be somewhat more gruesome! I actually feel guilty when I think about our initial plans for him. But as we progressed we were both open to doing U-turns and rewriting when something didn’t work. We didn’t stick slavishly to any ideas. I know it’s a cliché, but I think the characters ran the show more than we did.
L: Yes, during the writing, we had a couple of sticking points where we were like “Now what?” rather than Dan and Rhoda, but then we went back and fixed them up.
HM: If you were stuck in the under-mall, what would you be? A shopper, working for The Management or hiding in-between the cracks?
S: I think I would be hiding in the cracks. I’m not very good with authority, bureaucracy drives me mental, and I reckon I’d get bored with shopping after a while. I’m not a very good consumer.
L: Shopper. Definitely. Give me tons of money and plenty of time, I could find plenty of goodies to buy for myself and my friends and family.
HM: If you escaped the under-mall, would you return and why?
S: I think Rhoda and Dan are seduced by the fact that they have experienced something extraordinary, that is never boring, and have encountered a place where they are not judged. I think this could be seductive, but I like my current reality, so no, I don’t think I would make the choice to return. Besides, who’d feed the dogs?
L: I’d miss the sky and birds, open air, the chance to ever see the sun or the sea. As you can tell, I’ve toyed with the idea.
HM: So far, “The Mall” has been well received in the UK and South Africa. Are there plans to conquer the US and how do you think that the Mecca of Malls will react to the demonization of their favorite spot [though I tend to overgeneralize, cause malls are now global as well as the behavior assumed to go with it]?
S: I hope it hits the US soon. I have no idea how US readers will react – like you say, mall culture is global, so hopefully the people who haunt Wallmart and the strip malls will get a kick out of it.
L: We’d love to get it into the US. I think it would appeal to anyone who’s shopped in malls, whether they love or hate them. Those who hate malls would enjoy the satire, and those who love them would enjoy the sales.
HM: You’re next novel as S.L. Grey is titled “The Ward” and will expand on your universe, but this time the setting is a hospital, which most people find terrifying as it is. Is this novel a child of your accumulated loathing of hospitals? Why hospitals?
S: I don’t loathe hospitals at all, but I do hate medical aid and insurance schemes, which are a real-life horror here as well as in the US, and increasingly in the UK. If you have the money and the connections you have a better chance of good medical care and survival, which should be a basic human right. If we are satirising anything in The Ward, it is this. The real horrors lurk within the corporations and government agencies that play with people’s lives in order to make money. Sure, The Ward explores some visceral elements – hospitals can be scary places, especially if you accidentally find yourself in the morgue – but I hope we’ve created something fresh, new and terrifying that readers won’t expect.
L: As you say, hospitals are terrifying enough as they are, so we didn’t need to play that aspect up in quite the same way as we twisted malls. The idea of waking up, in trouble, in a vast and under-resourced state hospital served as a great starting point for our story.
By S.L. Grey
Reviewed by Harry Markov
The Mall by S.L. Grey is horror on steroids with a PhD in psychology. It’s the smart answer to the SAW series as far as torture challenges are concerned and I estimate that even Hannibal Lector would worry entering this alternate reality. Writers Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg set out to chillingly disturb and tastefully disgust.
I admit The Mall exhibited a rather slow start. Thirty pages in and I had not caught a whiff of horror, rather atypical from I’d expect from horror regardless of medium. In retrospect, I’m happy with the pacing as S.L. Grey justify every sentence used in the introduction of Dan and Rhoda, the unlikely protagonists, who must team up in order to survive the mall’s hazardous games. Both characters are socially dysfunctional. Dan’s a mall bookstore clerk with a strong tendency to whine as consistent with his emo persona, while Rhoda’s a scarred junkie with a short fuse and a potty mouth.
It’s Rhoda’s irresponsibility [leaving the kid she’s supposed to babysit at Dan’s bookstore in order to meet her dealer] that triggers The Mall’s domino effect. When the kid disappears [Rhoda really doesn’t know his name, OK] and Dan’s ineptitude to focus on anything other than his woes causes Rhoda trouble with the Highgate mall cops, it’s Rhoda’s idea of revenge to later take Dan hostage and have the whole mall searched for the kid. This plan backfires, when the Highgate mall ceases to be the Highgate.
S.L. Grey excel at reality distortion. As the characters enter sub-basement after next, the mall dons a more sinister atmosphere and the world tilts towards the macabre. From a mannequin massacre to mortifying signs, murderous text messages [while both cell phones suffer from no reception] and glowing rooms, Dan and Rhoda have to navigate this byzantine underground, until they enter the Other Mall. The Mall that has no closing time. The Mall that has no exit. The Mall that venerates consumerism, glorifies body mutilation and robotizes its employs as mechanic slaves.
The Mall employs the video gamer logic from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, most prominent in the scene with the elevator death-trap. References to Through the Looking Glass litter the whole novel as evident from the satire aimed at consumerism and the ideals celebrated in the under-mall. The Mall is high concept in its approach as to how it presents materialism and the hunger for hoarding and the itch to own.
Shoppers function as celebrities, whose purpose is to consume as Rhoda’s skillful narration demonstrates. Body image is taken to extremes with starvation and obesity as ideals of beauty and the advertising business promotes the true face of these ideals. In the under-mall, people have accepted the damage and seek more damage. The juxtaposition between the honesty and the familiarity of the advertising methods is what makes the under-mall so startling.
Although not entirely accurate, The Mall pays homage to body horror through the use of cell phones as extensions of both Rhoda and Dan as well as the main weapons the Management of the under-mall to tease and spook. As the couple descends further down in the mall’s depths, I felt how much they relied on their phones, on the reception and the time display and how with every sub-level their phones betrayed them, stripping Dan and Rhoda from their sense of time and becoming weapons for the Management.
The Mall’s atypical structure accommodates the ‘What Happens After’ segment, where Dan and Rhoda have escaped the under-mall and are faced with the normalcy of Joburg [as normal as Joburg can be]. I risk spoiling the novel, by giving away succulent character development. I’ll say it this way, S.L. Grey answer the question ‘What if the victims enjoyed running from monsters and evading fatalities?’ The answer warped all my expectations from horror as genre and proved to me that horror is more than shock and screams.
The Mall is a catalog of horror. It’s universal as malls around the globe. It will have you look with distrust your cell phone the next time you receive a text.
2013 BSFA Award winner!
2013 Kitschies Black Tentacle Award winner!
2011 World Fantasy Award Nominee.
The World SF Blog is dedicated to posting links, news and original content related to science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics from around the world.
The blog currently offers news, links and original content in the form of commentary, round table discussions, essays and interviews. We publish one piece of original content every Monday and an editorial most Wednesdays (links are posted at least once a day).We also publish fiction.
Past and present contributors to the blog include: Anil Menon (India), Guy Hasson (Israel), Kaaron Warren (Australia), Mihai Adascalitei (Romania), Aliette de Bodard (France), Fábio Fernandes (Brazil), Lauren Beukes (South Africa), Harry Markov (Bulgaria), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Athena Andreadis (Greece), Nick Wood (South Africa), Karin Tidbeck (Sweden), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines) and many others.
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