It’s still cold and grey enough outside to be immersed in the setting of Winter, released today from Unsung Stories as an e-book on the Unsung Signals list. Dan Gray’s Winter, the first title to be released on the list, is described as ‘a folkloric dystopian novelette’ and it’s set amid heavy snow in the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic uprising known as the ‘Second English Revolution’.
In the wake of the disastrous St. Pancras Bombing of 2022, Adam, May and Leila flee north of the border to Free Scotia where they encounter migrants Mikhail and Ingold hiding out at Adam’s parents’ old place. In this icy no-man’s land, the strangers keep uneasy company for several months as they each try to discover the others’ secrets. The mysterious Green Man seems to be linked both to the bombing disaster and to the powers of miraculous healing that they’ve witnessed, but everyone’s trying to keep their own identity concealed. This could be a brief outline of Winter‘s plot, although different readers may illuminate aspects of the story that I’ve neglected here.
That’s because on a deeper level Winter is a poetically written meditation on the possibilities of a revolution to come. Refreshingly for this kind of genre-fiction, Winter is not particularly dominated by plot and character tropes, but by its melodic contemplation of the various ways that a revolution might somehow occur in the not-too-distant future. It wears its politics on its sleeve, placing its protagonists as the anti-fascist escapees of an increasingly right-wing English system, and as such it explores the possibilities for revolution that may whisper gently in the air even now: ‘The song begins in silence’ (8).
Grace experiments with a fragmented narrative in Winter, where the progression of time is non-linear, and a variety of forms and text-types are interspersed to gradually reveal layers of meaning and dimensions of interrelationship between the characters and events. I appreciate this experimentation as an indication of what I consider to be a kind of ‘utopian dynamic’ or ‘utopian consciousness’ – the yearning for utopia which is, according to utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch, both ‘in the process of being’ and ‘not-yet’. Through this kind of fragmentary narrative, the full story can never quite be told, resisting the temptation towards authorial totality and energising the reader as an active participant in the creation of meaning.
However, there are some difficulties with this kind of experimental narrative that perhaps become more apparent when they’re placed within genre fiction which is so often led by its emphasis on strong plot and character development. It was difficult to fully enter the world of this story for about the first half of the book, as the characters felt under-explored and the plot wasn’t always clear. This could be a potential barrier for fans of typical standard-format sci-fi genre fiction. But Unsung Stories is a small press that likes to take risks with new and ambitious writing that doesn’t fit neatly into the standardised box of ready-made genres, and in this case, I think it’s worth the risk.
Both the narrative form and the story content are a meditation on the revolutionary possibilities of a future that suffers a rupture with its past. Leila vocalises this rupture when she says, ‘I don’t really remember getting here. It’s like, you know, disjunction, or something’ (48). This disjunction results in fragmentation and disorientation, a myriad of possibilities that might lead either somewhere or nowhere, and nobody knows which yet. To explore this kind of (utopian) revolutionary possibility, new narrative forms demand to be shaped in ways that necessarily sever them from the forms that went before. Dan Grace doesn’t always perfect this style, but he takes a bold stride forward.
Again with Winter, as with The Beauty, I felt that it could have given more in terms of plot and character development, whilst still retaining its experimentally meditative/’utopian dynamic’ style. It’s great to build all those enigmas into the storyline, but in a book like this, you feel as a reader that you’d like a little more payoff in the end.
Winter is a story that could be developed into a full-length novel very successfully: it’s well-researched, intriguingly imagined, and it blends the worlds of the occult and mysterious with the political and revolutionary in surprising and colourful ways. And as the first title to be released on Unsung Signals it heralds possibilities for experimenting with narrative forms that are well worth exploring.
Winter is a good read that will open your mind, if you let it.
About the publisher:
Unsung Signals is a new list from Unsung Stories which features science fiction, fantasy and horror writing up to 30,000 words long in e-book format, giving writers the freedom to work to a length that suits their stories, and readers the opportunity to read works from selected writers at all stages of their careers.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow: Research Assistant for The Contemporary Small Press