Klara and the Sun

What was Ishiguro trying to do with this unconvincing robot tale?

An author can use robots in lots of ways. Too often they are just another monster, the threatening and unnatural beings who excitingly menace the protagonist or the whole of humanity. Very rarely an author explores how the robot mind might work – difficult, because we really have little idea of how a humanoid robot might achieve conscious thought. Often the robot merely thinks like a naïve and/or over-logical human. (It never falls into a trance or comes out with inexplicable nonsense, the way real-life computers sometimes do.) Some of the best stories use the robot as a means of reflecting on the human condition – the film Blade Runner, for example (you might claim Frankenstein was similar in that respect).  I really don’t know what Klara, Ishiguro’s companion robot in this near-future story is for. (Spoilers for low.)

She is like a naïve human in many respects. Somehow solar-powered, she thinks of the Sun the way a human might a god, invoking its power and help. Her view of the world, if I understand correctly, is split into frames, though she has a view across the frames, so you’d think a good programmer would easily iron that issue out. Her mind, however, is neither interestingly strange in itself nor an illuminating analogue of the human. Her story, as the companion of Josie, a girl made ill by the genetic improvement therapy now common, is ultimately inconsequential except for what it tells us about human reactions to robots. The trouble is, what it tells us is inconsistent and unconvincing.

Perhaps the least believable thing is the way people go along with Klara. She hatches a mad scheme to help her family based on her weird ideas about the sun. They willingly help her execute this plan, which is partly nutty superstition and partly criminal, without ever demanding to know what she’s up to or being given any explanation. At some points they profess an extraordinary readiness to accept Klara emotionally as an actual family member; but once Josie has gone to college, they deposit her, still fully conscious, in a dump.

I said the story is set in the near future, but some things are odd. Klara is bought from a big, old-fashioned store in the city centre – they still exist? People seem to be using tablets but calling them ‘oblongs’ for some reason. Most of the kids have had their minds enhanced by genetic therapy, but they talk and act like dim-witted normal ones, actually less sophisticated in their speech and behaviour than the one kid who missed out on the therapy. Maybe that is fairly believable after all.

It’s a mildly engaging story with some thought-provoking passages, but I don’t know what we are to take away at the end of it.

May 2021 Competitions

2557C494-0E41-4DB3-A6AB-62635E77333BCraft Short Fiction Prize is for stories up to 5,000 words. The entry fee is $20 and the top prize $2,000 (plus a subscription). Time is running out already as the deadline is 2 May.
  • Only one day later we have the deadline for the Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Again the maximum word count is 5,000: the entry fee is AU$25 (less for subscribers) and the first prize is AU$6,000.
  • The Bristol Prize has a deadline of 5 May for stories up to 4,000 words; it’s £9 to enter and you can win £1,000.
  • Word Periscope wants stories on the theme ‘Time’, up to a mere 1,500 words, and offers a prize of £1,500. You’ve got until 15 May. The entry fee is £7, or for £15 you can also have feedback.
  • The Raymond Carver prize also has a deadline of 15 May; the word limit is a spacious 10,000, the entry fee $17 and top prize $2,000.
  • Chiplitfest, with a deadline of 16 May, lets you choose your word limit. If you’re happy with 2,500 words, you pay £5 to enter, but you can go up to 5,000 if you pay £8. Either way the first prize is just £500.
  • City Academy is running an unusual contest which seems almost like a mini writing course. You register your interest and receive a series of prompts and exercises. This has been going on for a while already, so if you register now you’ll get all the earlier stuff in one go. The actual entry doesn’t have to be in until 25 May, and the entry fee is £15 (sounds like good value if you fancy a mini-course thrown in). Top prize is £1,000.
  • The Wit to Woo wants pieces up to 10,000 words (which need not be about dating, or indeed, owls – the competition is amiably headlined ‘Write What You Like’). The entry fee is £7, top prize £1,500, and the deadline is 28 May.
  • With a deadline of 31 May (I think) the complicated Page Turner Awards include one for the first ten pages of completed novel manuscripts. Pricing includes an early bird option (too late already, sorry), and there are bronze, silver, and gold options whereby you can pay more for a whole range of extras; the basic seems to be £30, but if you can find out what the prize is, please let me know. It might be unfair, but I couldn’t help feeling that selling the extras and a writing software package is what the labyrinthine website is really about. Shame, but I think I might pass.
  • The BPA First Novel Award asks for your first 5,000 words plus a synopsis; entry is £20 and the prize £1,000; deadline 31 May.
  • The prestigious Bridport competition also has a deadline of 31 May. You can enter stories up to 5,000 words for £12 and the top prize is £5,000.
  • Swoop Books wants stories on the theme ‘Love Locks’, with word limits of 2-3,000. The entry fee is £5 and prize just £100, deadline 31 May.
  • Finally the Queen Mary Wasafiri prize, also with a deadline of 31 May,   has a top prize of £1,000; entry is £10, and the word limit is 3,000. I think a prior look at Wasafiri magazine would be helpful if you want to try for this one.
Good Luck! If you win any of these, let me know! PostScript. Charlotte Wakefield from the Page Turner Awards has helpfully contacted me with some clarification. She says: The deadline is the 31st May, that’s correct, and submission fees start from £30 depending on which membership option or optional extras you might be interested in. You were interested to know more about the prizes, which you can browse here – 2021 Award Prizes | Page Turner Awards. Our mission is to offer meaningful prizes to new writers and established authors, ranging from mentorship to publishing packages to audiobook production.  You can find further details about our awards on our site here – About Us | Page Turner Awards If you have any further questions about the awards, I’d be happy to help.  Feel free to also browse testimonials from last year’s entrants here – Awards Testimonials | Page Turner Awards This should help give you an understanding of what we’re all about.  To enter, you must first register your details. Then, you can log in and enter your submission. You can register and enter here – Enter In Two Steps | Page Turner Awards Please do check that you’re entering for the appropriate award category. There are different criteria depending on whether your work is published or unpublished, and completed or uncompleted. You can browse the 5 award categories here – 2021 Award Categories | Page Turner Awards I’m grateful for the trouble she has taken, and pass that on for your information.

April 2021 Competitions

E4BDAEA9-C78B-4719-BF55-76D1CBC63DD8 Here are the writing competitions I might enter in April.  As always this is a purely personal selection (eg, no poetry, YA or flash, nothing where you have to send a paper ms by post or pay the entrance fee by bank transfer), with no claim to be comprehensive. Not quite so many this month.
  • A big one to start with, though.  The Alpine Fellowship prize is free to enter, but has an impressive top prize of £10,000, plus an invitation to their annual international conference. Only one 3ntry per writer. The theme is Untamed: On Wilderness and Civilization and the deadline is 1 April, so if you haven’t got a story ready to go, you’ll need to get moving. The maximum word count is 2,500.
  • The Tusculum Review wants stories between 2,000 and 6,500 words; the entry fee is $15 (though that also gets you a year’s subscription) and the top prize $1,000. The deadline is 2 April.
  • Top prize for the H.E.Bates competition is £500, with an entry fee of £6 (discounts for multiple entries) and a word limit of 2,000; the deadline is 5 April.
  • Desperate Literature seeks stories up to 2,000 words; the entry fee is €20 and first prize €1,500 plus a week’s residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation The deadline is 15 April.
  • The same deadline applies for the New Ohio Review competition; the fee is $22, the prize $1,500 and maximum length is 20 pages.
  • The White Review looks for avant-garde stuff from writers resident in the UK or Ireland. Word count should be between 2,000 and 7,000; the entry fee is £15 and top prize £2,500. The deadline is 26 April.
  • F(r)iction magazine is again looking for stories up to 7,500 words. First prize is $1,600 and entry is $15, with a deadline of 29 April.
  • The Yeovil Literary Prize has several categories, including an ‘anything goes’ one. For the short story category the word limit is 2,000. The fee is £8 and top prize £600. The deadline is 30 April.
  • Finally, the Tom Howard/John H Reid competition accepts essays as well as fiction, with a prize of $3,000 dollars each; 6,000 words max, with a $20 entry fee and a 30 April deadline.
Good Luck! If you win any of these, let me know!

Luckenbooth

This novel, by Jenni Fagan, is the horrifying biography of a building, organised by floors and rooms rather than chronologically. One reviewer compared it to George Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual: the form is similar, working through a series of loosely linked stories room by room, but the tone and content is very different. This building is an old-fashioned Edinburgh tenement, 10, Luckenbooth Close. A Luckenbooth is a kind of stall selling trinkets, and by extension the little pair of linked hands made in silver that were the most popular item for sale there; but apart from providing the address that doesn’t seem to be of any wider importance to the story.

The history of this building is full of dark fantasy, violence and the supernatural, ghastly tales delivered with skill and a kind of gloomy zest. If that’s the kind of thing you like, a feast awaits you here; for me the fantastic crossed over into the absurd a little too often. There’s a passage towards the end which recounts a kind of duel between local gangsters and Triad members, which would make a great comic book, or maybe a Tarantinoesque film sequence, but while I read it avidly I didn’t believe a word of it; exciting, but in the superficial way a brilliantly choreographed fight scene might be. Perhaps I’m hard to please. Others have detected elements of social commentary here which eluded me.

Or take the opening of the book in which Jessie MacRae paddles away from some island where she has killed her father (who is the Devil, apparently, and not altogether dead, either; like a lot of things in the story this is sort of inexplicable). For a boat she uses the coffin her father made for her, though goodness knows how that works. Where is she coming from, anyway? She ends up in Leith, but there aren’t really any islands off Scotland’s North Sea coast, and her father’s corpse is said to stare at the North Atlantic. It does take her three days, but even just coming from Orkney would have to be some amazing feat of seamanship in these dangerous waters – or, of course, just magic. Perhaps I’m niggling over details, but sailing in a coffin is for me one of the touches that tries too hard, slipping from the horrifying into the risible. Jessie, who has been sold by her father to be a kind of surrogate mother, is herself demonic, producing the baby within days and growing horns like her Dad’s. That rather recalls Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, though as I understand it Mr Pye’s horns were a sarcastic comment from God on a man who took himself much too seriously and the moral complexity of the world nothing like seriously enough (I’ll just leave that there).

There’s a lot to enjoy here if you like a bit of grisly gothic. For me, when the last mutilated corpses have been uncovered, the final ghosts released, and the building finally subsides into ruin, one deep and difficult question is left in the reader’s mind. What was all that about?

Lucent Dreaming Novella

Just heard that the Lucent Dreaming novella competition has been cancelled. Results were due at the end of this month but there were only thirteen entrants! Entry fees are being refunded. It surprises me that during lockdown more people weren’t writing, but perhaps it reflects the lack of popularity for the novella form – I only know of one other current contest (the Clay Reynolds). Let’s hope that does all right.

March 2021 Competitions

2FB2E518-945E-4DE2-9EF6-3C53AFEB97BA Here are the writing competitions I might enter in March (eg, no poetry, YA or flash – a couple of really short shorts , though. Below a thousand words is a bit of a squeeze for me).

It looks like a busy month.

  • The Bridgend Writer’s Circle offers a first prize of £100 for stories between 1,500 and 1,800 words – entry fee £5 and a deadline of 1 March
  • The Elmbridge Literary Competition seeks stories of up to 1,400 words on the theme of ‘music’. The entry fee is £5 and top prize £250; the deadline is 5  March.
  • The Stella Kupferberg prize is one of those tight ones, with a limit of a mere 750 words. It’s associated with American public radio; besides a prize of $1,000, the winner gets their story professionally read and gains free entry to a ten-week course (not sure if this is accessible online). Entry is $25 and the deadline is 5 March.
  • The Fowey Festival offers a prize of £200 for a story on the theme of ‘breaking point’. The entry fee is £10 and the deadline is 7 March.
  • Wild Hunt magazine is celebrating its fifth birthday by running its first competition. A reasonable 3,000 word limit applies, and a fee of £4 with a prize of £200. No theme, but stories should embrace the ethos and mission of the magazine, which ‘celebrates the weird, surreal, the other, and imaginary worlds’. Deadline 9 March.
  • The Nelligan Prize is for a story of 10-50 pages or 2,500 to a whopping 12,500 words. Entry is $15, the top prize is $2,000 and entries must be in by 15 March.
  • Harper’s Bazaar wants stories up to 2,200 words on the subject of ‘Threads’. It’s free to enter, but there is no money prize, just publication and two nights at the Mitre Hotel in Hampton Court. The deadline is 15 March.
  • I love this one. Silver Apples offers a prize of €100 for a story of 1,500 to 5,000 words, with an entry fee of €10. All entries must have been previously rejected by publishers or failed in an earlier competition! The deadline is 17 March.
  • You’ll need a full completed novel manuscript (at least 50,000 words) for the Daniel Goldsmith First Novel Prize. Entry is £25 and you can win £1,000. The deadline is 30 March.

Then as usual we have a clutch of competitions with deadlines at the end of the month.

  • The regular Henshaw competition requires stories up to 2,000 words; entry is £6 and the first prize is £200.
  • The Short Fiction/University of Essex prize has an entry fee of £7 and a prize of £500 for stories up to 5,000 words. There is an additional prize for ‘Wild Writing’ which goes to an entry on nature/the environment.
  • The Ernest Hemingway Short Fiction Prize is run by Fiction Southeast and apparently  has no direct connection with the author or his granddaughter Lorian, who used to run a regular short story contest. Enter a story up to 1,500 words for $10 and you could win $200.
  • The Clay Reynolds Prize is for a novella (20,000 to 50,000 words) and offers an advance of $500 and a publishing contract. There’s an entry fee of $20.
  • Finally, the Bethlehem Writers want a story with an element of mystery, up to 2,000 words. They plan to produce an anthology of stories that are ‘Sweet, funny and strange’. Entry is $15, first prize is $250.

Good Luck! If you win any of these, let me know!

Fiction Factory

The results of the Fiction Factory competition are now out, and while I didn’t get placed, my story Garghan House did make the long list! I’m currently getting some kind of recognition for about one in eight of my competition entries, which is encouraging enough to keep me going.

Secret Attic (short)

My story The Present has been selected in the Secret Attic (short) short story competition! (They also have a (long) short story competition.) No prize, but it appears in their Booklet #8 (already available from Lulu). Another one for my sparse shelf of publications.