When Sam Thompson's excellent Communion Town was published by Fourth Estate last year it went broadly unnoticed. The only way the broadsheet reviewers could bring themselves to understand the book was in terms of pastiche—an unjust and inaccurate reading if ever there was one. When Communion Town was longlisted for the Booker Prize interest picked up a bit, but even then it was many months before readers and reviewers of a speculative persuasion started to hear about it.
Speaking as a guest of the BSFA London meeting in June, the writer James Smythe described how a fellow author, widely praised for his literary debut, was beginning to have real misgivings about how his more speculative follow-up was being treated by his publishers. His debut novel is a dark, literary satire of modern urban life. His second book contains elements of Lovecraftian horror and English weird fiction—and yet the words "horror" and "weird" and "speculative" have apparently already been debarred from any advance publicity surrounding the book. The publishers clearly do not want to "tarnish" it with intimations of science fiction.
What all this means is that when the book finally appears next year, it is likely to be bought by people who will ultimately reject it as "too weird," and unintentionally passed over by those readers who would most readily appreciate it. It is perhaps the most ironic side effect of the literary snobbery of the mainstream and the occasional inverse snobbery of the genre community that many of speculative fiction's more original texts end up wandering, dissolute, lost, and unnoticed in the literary boondocks. The mainstream has always felt more comfortable ignoring novels and writers it finds hard to classify, whereas those genre readers who would seize such books to their hearts often don't get to hear about them.
This lamentably seems to have been the case with Scott Bradfield. Some of Bradfield's first published stories appeared in Interzone in the heady days of that magazine's infancy. His story "The Flash Kid," which appeared in the fifth issue of Interzone in the autumn of 1983, was published alongside stories by John Crowley, John Shirley, and Richard Cowper, while "Unmistakably the Finest," which was in Interzone the following summer, shared the issue (#8) with work by J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. There could be no doubt then about Bradfield's SF credentials; indeed "The Flash Kid" and "Unmistakably the Finest" were both nominated for the BSFA Award.
These early stories are typical of Bradfield's particular and unique approach to speculative fiction. With their elliptical grace, their thorny discursiveness, their disdain for tropes and preoccupation with language and the weirdly juxtaposed interstices of innerspace, Bradfield's science fiction has a great deal more in common with the New Wave of the 1960s and 70s than with the more commodified, commercial type of science fiction that came to predominate within the genre in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps this goes a part of the way to explaining the mystery of why a writer whose close-to-Nabokovian facility with language has been so unjustly sidelined. A measure of culpability though surely lies with Bradfield's mainstream publishers (Chatto, Knopf, Bloomsbury, Picador) who, if their undemonstrative and noncommittal blurbs of the time are anything to go by, seemed determined to scratch Bradfield's science fictional leanings entirely from the record. It is precisely such ignorant actions that have possibly denied Bradfield the most significant and appreciative segment of his rightful audience.
In his afterword to Calamari Press's 2013 reissue of his first novel, The History of Luminous Motion, Bradfield describes those early Interzone stories as "incredibly difficult and time consuming to complete." For a writer as preoccupied with perfection as Bradfield it comes as no surprise, perhaps, to learn that the task he set himself in discovering his voice was one to which he applied himself with the greatest diligence and under the constant pressure of the fear of failure. But a move from California to London and the financially insecure but creatively stimulating life of a jobbing writer appears to have lifted his confidence. His work rate increased, and Bradfield states, again in his afterword, that his first novel was completed during one of the happiest periods of his life. By the time Luminous Motion came to publication in 1989 it would seem that Bradfield felt he had hit his stride.
The History of Luminous Motion could loosely be described as the story of an ordinarily dysfunctional American family, the Davises. That this story is filtered through the gaze and narrative voice of Phillip Davis—eight years old, miraculously precocious, probably psychotic, and possibly a murderer—is just one of the things that makes this novel so beautifully crazy, so original and so disturbing and such a significant addition to the canon of the unreliable narrator. As we open the novel, Phillip and his mother (known throughout as "Mom"—it will be well into the second half of the book before we learn her first name) are already in motion, possibly in flight, from Phillip's father, though why this familial breakup has occurred is never fully explained. It is clear from the outset that Phillip is no ordinary child. The way he sees the world, replete with abstractions and hidden meanings, reveals to us both his giftedness and, increasingly, his sociopathy, Phillip and his mother exist in a country of two:
With Mom I easily forgot Dad, who became little more than a phenomenon, a strange weighted tendency rather than a man, as if this was Mom's final retribution, making Dad the future. Mom was always now. Mom was the movement that never ceased. Mom lived in the world with me and nobody else, and every few days or so it seemed she was driving me to more strange new places in our untamed and ominously clattering beige Rambler. . . . No matter where we went, we seemed to be where we had been before. We were more than a country, Mom and I. We were a quality of landscape. . . . We were like an MX missile, always moving but always already exactly where we were supposed to be. There were many times when I thought of Mom and me as a sort of weapon. (p. 8)
For Mom, this Denis-Johnson-type road trip proceeds in a succession of one-night stands and desultory temporariness, a state of affairs Phillip himself finds pleasingly arbitrary and sees no reason to change. A measure of security is eventually offered in the form of Bernie aka "Pedro" Robertson, a hardware store owner and "very nice man" with a passion for DIY. Mom acquiesces that Pedro is dull, but he is reliably dull, and in that very reliability resides the potential for redemption. Redemption—or at least the kind of redemption Pedro has in mind—is a prospect Phillip views with a species of horror one might more properly expect to find in a prisoner facing lifelong incarceration:
It was like Wittgenstein's allegory of the matchboxes. Even though I knew and preserved that special and untransgressed secret of myself from the world's systematic fiddling, ensconced in its immutable privacy the secret itself ceased to breathe and turn. It became an artefact, like something buried in the stale air and glass cases of some shoddy museum, one filled with estranged and obdurate guards in blue suits and official looking hats that didn’t quite fit. I wasn't Mom's baby anymore. I wasn't the rider of Mom's ceaseless motion. I was just another kid in school. I was just another child awaiting his "formative years," coddled with warm blankets and bland, nutritious meals. I was just a matchbox. I was just a thin matchbox in which some broken object could be heard rattling. It might be a penny. It might be a plastic green soldier. It might be fragments of a splintery pencil, or a pebble, or a rusty nail, or some dead insect. Or it might be just nothing. It might be nothing worth having at all. (p. 19)
Finally, the only way for Phillip to put a stop to this future is to put a stop to Pedro, and it is Pedro's very own beautifully kept toolbox that provides the means to that end. Pedro's toolbox, like Chekhov's gun, is introduced early in the narrative, and like that gun before it, its ominous purpose is made clear at once in the tone of the narrative:
Pedro loved to build things out there. . . . With the hacksaw that he always replaced so carefully in the oiled and immaculate toolbox. With the pliers. With the sharp steel file. With the ball peen hammer. With all those solid and patently useful tools he kept filed in the large glimmering steel toolbox and stored underneath the same bed in which he and Mom slept together each night. (p. 13)
Once Phillip has commandeered the toolbox for his own sinister purposes, the only option Mom can see is to hit the road again.
While Mom clings to what remains of her sanity in a semi-furnished rental in an unprepossessing neighborhood, Phillip runs wild with Rodney, an older kid with an equally odd relationship with his own mother and a petty criminal’s disregard for other people's property, and argues politics, feminism, and religion with Beatrice, the world-weary twelve-year-old to whom he is angling to lose his virginity:
I guess you guys should know right away that I'm a Marxist. I support the Sandinistas, and the leftist guerrilla forces in Chad. I'm not a vulgar Marxist or anything, I mean, I don't pick my nose in public (that's supposed to be a little joke)—no, I guess you'd have to call me a post-structural Marxist. I give credit to Althuser, but I'm not an acolyte of anybody. (p. 52)
Eventually, Phillip's dad turns up. He wants Mom and Phillip back in his life. Mom, meanwhile, has retreated to her bedroom and communicates solely through one-line notes left on the kitchen counter. Furthermore, she's pregnant. If we have learned anything of Phillip thus far, it is that he is unlikely to respond positively to these kinds of developments. It’s not long before he begins putting his own solution to the problem of Dad into merciless action.
The History of Luminous Motion is a horror novel in the same way that Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie (1995) is a horror novel, or Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (1978). There are no supernatural happenings in this book. Instead we are invited to examine the violence and existential horror that lurks at the heart of conventional suburban existence. Here is chaos dressed in jeans and plimsolls and lunching at McDonald's, and whilst it can be argued that the children in History have been created to resemble more modern incarnations of Miles and Flora in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, demons cloaked in the bodies of children for convenient concealment, it is actually the shadow of William Golding's Lord of the Flies that looms longest over the action of this novel, with its question of "who will rescue the grownups?" hovering unanswered in the overheated California air. There are echoes here, too, of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with Phillip's lethal possessiveness over Mom reminding us strongly of Merricat Blackwood's fierce protective instincts towards her older sister Constance, her willingness to employ any deadly means to warn off greedy Cousin Charles.
There is a chance, I suppose, that some readers will find a problem in suspending their disbelief. The voice of Phillip, after all, is about as far from the voice of most eight-year-olds as it is possible to journey. There is so much of irony however in Bradfield's delivery of it that for this reader at least there is no question that he gets away with his maneuver, and with huge aplomb. For it is the children in this narrative who have life—who have motion—and while their parents stand mute, make excuses in platitudinous monosyllables or otherwise wait for the future to hit them like a runaway HGV on an icy freeway, the interactions and philosophizing and criminal masterminding of Rodney and Beatrice and above all of Phillip himself spark up off the page like black diamonds, glittering like time bombs. I personally found this knowing reversal of roles deliciously dark and convincing and compellingly bleak.
There will always be arguments as to what can be allowably classified as SF, and whether The History of Luminous Motion ultimately qualifies will in the end be up to the personal tastes and prerequisites of the individual reader. For this reader, it is Bradfield's subversion of the normal, his instinctual feel for the unreliable, the obsessional, delusional, and visionary, his infallible grasp and scintillating depictions of the hyper-realistic, that make him one of the most brilliant and under-regarded writers of speculative fiction working today. The fact that, thirty years into his career, he is still struggling for the recognition to which he is so clearly entitled should be a source of regret for those readers who would best appreciate his work and have yet to discover it, and a source of shame for a publishing industry that seems to be becoming ever more cautious about lending its support to talent as brave and uncompromising and luminous as Scott Bradfield's.
All the more kudos then to Calamari Press, for bringing this writer's marvelously unpredictable backlist once again to our attention.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in 2013. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.