Four Stories by Nina Allan

Early on in “Wilkolak”, the story’s protagonist, a London-based Polish teenager known as Kip, has spotted and photographed a man who he thinks bears a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal. But:

Kip didn’t want to think about the murder. It was the photograph of the murderer that interested him, some loser with a plastic carrier bag crossing the street. The image might seem ordinary but Kip knew it wasn’t, that the very act of framing the man in his viewfinder and then choosing to release the shutter made the picture significant. The main point of a photograph was to invite you to look, to concentrate on the world around you a little harder.

“Wilkolak” (which can be found in Crimewave 11) is a horror story with only the faintest hint of a suggestion of a trace of anything not scrupulously mimetic, yet this is a passage that can be taken as emblematic of Nina Allan’s approach to the fantastic in her short fiction. Situations seem ordinary, but are not, and their lack of ordinariness is signalled primarily by small details or moments. In “Wilkolak”, for all that the criminal’s victim is one Rebecca Riding, last seen wearing a red coat, and for all that the predatory nature of the man in the photograph reminds Kip of the Polish folk tale from which the title is taken, there’s no suggestion that the game of is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty is going to resolve into a literal werewolf tale. Rather, if the fantastic lurks anywhere in this story, it lurks in Kip’s interactions with his girlfriend, Sonia, who asks for a print of the photo only to later reveal that it reminds her of a man she saw in a dream, “some kind of monster … He could kill people, just by looking at them”; and who, after a perfect afternoon in a park, insists out of nowhere that she wants Kip “to know that whatever happened today was real … That all of this really happened.” Such moments may seem to be sidebars to the main action, which circles around Kip’s growing fascination with the man, but the psychic dread they evoke is the story’s true motor.

Kip’s attraction to photography is typical, though: a lot of Allan’s protagonists either are or know people of a creative bent. In other stories she’s published this year we find a blocked writer of fiction, a somewhat desperate journalist, a documentary film-maker, and an acquaintance of a painter. The last of these, in “The Upstairs Window” (Interzone 230), provides the opportunity for another seemingly self-reflective passage. His paintings appear to be an abstract mass of colours, but in fact are composed of miniature paintings of disparate objects, whose connection is not at all clear to Allan’s narrator, Ivan:

Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention.

Ivan may not have time for this, but we should; just because Allan’s stories are filled with the specific does not mean — in the best cases — that they are overdetermined. To go back to the earlier quote, framing does not determine meaning; framing is an invitation to look at the world around you.

And even in her overtly fantastic stories, Allan’s settings are recognisably derived from the world around her: that is, contemporary London. Often, the fantastic has been normalised; the first indication that the setting of “The Upstairs Window” is in fact not contemporary London, at least not as we know it, is a passing reference to what seems to have been a theocratic revolution. Gradually a clearer picture emerges, of a Britain in which the “Bermondsey Statutes” have instituted severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for particularly upsetting artists. It’s these statutes that Ivan’s artist friend, Niko, has fallen foul of, and which mean he needs to flee the country. But that’s not what the story is about, it’s just what happens, and only part of what happens, at that. None of the threads are fully resolved; as Lois Tilton observes, it makes for an ending that forces us to choose, to find the overt meaning that the collage of glimpses seems to deny.

There’s another departure in Allan’s other Interzone tale of the year, the more science-fictionally sophisticated “Flying in the Face of God” (IZ227). This might have been the story of a bold American astronaut, Rachel Alvin, who’s volunteered for the deep-space adaptations known as the Kushnev process. Like Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners, or the Spacers of Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”, once she’s gone through the process, Rachel will be removed from the normal run of humanity. The initial physiological changes involve thickened skin, paled eyes, reduced need for food and water, and by the time of the voyage the fliers will be able to exist in a “a kind of para-existence.” Allan’s focus, however, is not on the changes experienced by the woman travelling to the stars, but on the continuity experienced by a woman who remains behind. “Flying” is actually the story of the London-based film-maker, Anita Schleif, who has already had one flier in her life — her mother, now dead — and who in getting to know Rachel has had the misfortune to fall in unrequited love with another.

It’s a story with a complex relationship with more conventional sf, fully engaged with the troubled myths of the frontier that space exploration stories always draw on, yet more about a life touched by sf, struggling to integrate an sfnal event into the texture of the everyday, than about a life being shaped by sf, or using sf to shape the world. This is, of course, how it is and will be for most of us, most of the time, and I think the great achievement of the story is in the way it establishes a firm connection to the reader (at least this English reader) while acknowledging the frustrating partiality of any human connection — and without selling the strangeness of the Kushnev process short, to the point of actually allowing and succeeding in a moment of honest-to-god sense of wonder, when Anita visits Rachel before her launch: “She’s really going up, thought Anita. For the first time the sight of her friend brought not sorrow or anger, but awe.”

It remains an awe rooted in the specific — in the sense that Anita has finally seen Rachel’s new reality — but “Flying in the Face of God” is rare among Allan’s stories for representing a connection between humans so generously. “The Phoney War”, perhaps the best story Allan has published in 2010, portrays a more fraught situation, at all levels. In the foreground of the story is a journalist, Nicky, setting out on a journey to find out what’s happened to an old friend, across a landscape that if we didn’t read the story in Allen Ashley’s anthology Catastrophia we might at first think is just the greyest parts of Britain on an off-day. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s an ongoing and pervasive deterioration. There are problems with the power supply. There are no broadsheets on sale, only slimmed-down tabloids. Petrol stations are empty. As much as anything, Nicky keeps working to try to impose a frame on the uncertainty, to force herself to pay attention to the world.

She still wrote for the Clapham Gazette even though her writing no longer paid her enough to make ends meet. She wrote her regular column in the form of a diary and it satisfied the same purposes: the need to externalise thought, the need to make sense of her life and above all the need to keep a record of the things that happened.

As Nicky travels, and the story flashes between past and present, we learn that the cause of the chaos is the possibility of first contact. News of impending alien arrival has caused widespread panic, and the government appears to have taken the opportunity to impose a more autocratic regime; the extent to which the former is exaggerated as cover for the latter is, to those on the ground, unclear. But this remains background — a more insistent background than the worlds of “Flying in the Face of God” and “The Upstairs Window”, but nevertheless — with Nicky’s foremost concern her attempt to find her friend. When she succeeds, however, on the cold coast at Dungeness, she finds that personal truth remains just as elusive.

In her conversations with her friend, and with the “foreign-looking” man she turns out to be living with, Nicky is almost, but not quite, allowed to reach a moment of understanding; indeed, another way of looking at Allan’s stories is that they almost all, in different ways, address moments of hesitation, both for their characters and for their readers. They get away with it, I think, because of the normalised, even mundane nature of Allan’s settings; but “The Upstairs Window” leaves threads dangling; “The Phoney War” refuses any neat emotional closure; “Wilkolak” ends literally in mid-scene, much like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” leaving it to the reader to resolve the story. Only “Flying in the Face of God”, of the stories I’ve been discussing here, moves past the moment of hesitation to suggest that something like connection is possible — and even there, it may be a self-deluding, one-sided connection.

Nina Allan’s had a busy year, and a very strong one, yet I feel she’s still one of the better-kept secrets of British sf. What remains to be seen, I suppose, is how well she can sustain her approach — or how she evolves it — at greater length. Apparently she’s been putting the finishing touches to a novel; I’d like to read it.

21 Responses to “Four Stories by Nina Allan”

  1. neilwilliamson Says:

    I was lucky enough to hear Nina read from the opening of her novel at Fantasycon this year, and if the rest of the book is as engagingly mysterious and yet grounded as that was, we’re all in for a treat.

    She’s now moved on to my inclusion-in-TOC = reason to buy list.

  2. Jonathan M Says:

    She writes what I have long thought of as ‘Interzone Stories’. Not because Interzone only ever publish those kinds of stories but because she writes in a style that seems to pop up more frequently in Interzone than anywhere else.

    Low-temperature stories full of beautiful yet enigmatic mundanity and just enough of a touch of the fantastic and the Other to make them linger in the memory.

    She’s definitely something special and someone to be watched. I’d be fascinated to see what she could do over the longer distance of a novel.

  3. Niall Says:

    Neil: I don’t suppose you know whether she’s sold it?

    Jonathan: Yes, although perhaps Interzone of the 80s more than Interzone of the 90s?

  4. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    I quite adored “Flying in the Face of God” and will probably nominate it for awards. I haven’t read her other work, but should.

  5. Niall Says:

    That’s good to hear! Her fiction does feel so particularly British in some ways that I wondered how it travels.

  6. Rich Horton Says:

    I’ve been impressed with Allan’s work since first encountering it (I think) in ALBEDO ONE a couple or three years back.

    She also had a nice long novelette called “Bellony” in an anthology called BLIND SWIMMER this year. It’s about a reporter investigating a novelist who had disappeared some years earlier, and finding odd things in the novelist’s past — hints that she wasn’t who she seemed, etc. etc. — all of which leads to a somewhat underplayed SFnal explanation that isn’t the point of the story at all.

  7. Neil Williamson Says:

    Niall – I don’t think it’s complete yet. Or at least, wasn’t at the time.

  8. Gary Couzens Says:

    I didn’t get to Nina’s Fantasycon reading as it was before I’d arrived (I hadn’t been able to get the Friday off work) but I’ll ditto what Neil and others have said. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting Nina in person a few times now. For me the first story of hers that made an impact on me was “Bird Songs at Eventide” which was shortlisted for the BFS Short Story Competition in the one year I was a sifting judge – and if I’d had my way it would have won. It went on to be published in Interzone and was shortlisted for a BSFA Award. In retrospect it’s atypical in being set on another planet.

    This does hark back to a panel at the 2008 Eastercon which both Niall and I were on, asking where the British short-story writers were, as the last batch were now writing novels and when they did sell short fiction it was often to Asimov’s and F & SF rather than to Interzone. Well, here’s one. (As I said at the time IIRC, there are also people like Allen Ashley and Mike O’Driscoll, who have both been around for twenty years plus, but they tend to write slipstream/dark fantasy/horror rather than SF.)

    Yes, I’d certainly like to read a novel by her. However, I do wonder how it would fit in a SF/fantasy genre market. If as distinguished a short-fiction writer as Ian R. Macleod (who can also write, amongst other things what could be called “low temperature stories full of beautiful [...] mundanity”) can only have his novels published in the UK in limited edition hardbacks at collector’s-market prices, I remain cautiously optimistic.

  9. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    Anyone know whether she’s Campbell eligible? I’m guessing no, but I can’t find confirmation.

  10. Niall Says:

    It seems like the answer should be no, but I actually have no idea. Going by the Campbell Guidelines most of her stories won’t be eligible because Interzone and Black Static aren’t qualifying markets. (Have any of her stories been picked up for Year’s Best volumes? Do they count?) Similarly, I don’t know whether she’s been in any original anthologies (such as last year’s Catastrophia) that would qualify because I can’t find pay rate details for them.

  11. Gary Couzens Says:

    I don’t know if it would count, but she had a story in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 2.

    Since I was a Worldcon attendee last year (won’t be going this year) I do have Hugo nomination rights for 2011, so may just do that and see what happens.

  12. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    Hmmm. The Campbell rules always confuse me. I’m not seeing an easy way to contact her directly to ask (possibly I’m just not so great with google). Maybe I’ll try bugging Andy @ Interzone.

  13. Gary Couzens Says:

    I had a chat yesterday with a friend who was also in Catastrophia, and it would seem that would be a qualifying sale (for him as well as Nina) on payrate grounds (at least 3 cents a word with a total payment of at least $50 – in this case it would be the equivalent in pounds sterling).

  14. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    Too bad… but it’s awesome that you figured it out so fast, Gary!

  15. Niall Says:

    Hang on, if Catastrophia does qualify, then she is eligible this year, assuming she hasn’t had an earlier qualifying anthology sale.

  16. Gary Couzens Says:

    The Locus index only goes up to 2007, but the only anthology appearances I know of (off the top of my head) before Catastrophia are in the Elastic Press anthology Subtle Edens (2008) and the Strange Tales from Tartarus anthology from 2003. I’m pretty certain the former doesn’t qualify and I don’t think the latter would either. All her other publications listed in the Index are in non-qualifying magazines such as Interzone, The Third Alternative, Midnight Street, Roadworks, Supernatural Tales, Dark Horizons etc. , dating back to 2002.

    There’s also her collection A Thread of Truth, from Eibonvale Press, published 2007, but I suspect that won’t qualify either, though I could be wrong.

    I think I’ll just nominate her and let the Hugo/Campbell award admins decide, but on the basis of my “investigations” yesterday, Catastrophia may well be her first qualifying publication credit.

  17. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    For what it’s worth, Andy said he didn’t know, and he gave me an email address.

  18. Niall Says:

    I’ve emailed Nina as well, and the upshot is I’m fairly sure she’s eligible this year, clock started by either Catastrophia or Datlow’s YB Horror.

  19. Rachel Swirsky Says:

    Yep, sounds like a yes. I’m going to do some Campbell reading then make a post about Nina and others.

  20. Gary Couzens Says:

    I checked with Ellen Datlow about the Year’s Best – pay rate is below the qualifying threshold. But the payrate for Catastrophia is above it.

  21. Niall Says:

    I was guessing the Datlow reprint would qualify because of print run rather than pay rate.


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