Awards Awards Awards

1. BSFA Awards

For anyone who didn’t see the note buried in the comments of the shortlist post, Hal Duncan has withdrawn his essay “Ethics and Enthusiasm” from consideration for the Non-Fiction Award.

With that in mind, now, admittedly I don’t think it has a hope in hell of winning, but then I didn’t think it had a hope in hell of making the shortlist, so on the off-chance that it does… I think it would be criminal for my exploration of modes of critique to be accorded more status and attention than the exploration of issues of representation and diversity carried out by Deepa D, especially when those issues are precisely born of a disparity of status and attention. It would, I feel, be validating the very situation that requires redress if the BSFA Awards were to valorise abstractions that bear only a passing relevance to the field over a commentary that bears directly on its practical, political realities, not least because of the disparities of privilege at play here. It’s awesome to have people take note of what I say from my platform, but in this case I’m going to use that platform to say, there are other voices you should be listening to first.
[...]
So, with the utmost gratitude to those who put it there, and more than a little reticence because of course I’d fucking love a BSFA Award for non-fiction, I’d like to respectfully withdraw “Ethics and Enthusiasm” from the running, and leave the contest to those works which bear directly on the field.

The Guardian has noted the shortlists here — “After Booker snub, Adam Roberts in running for SF honour” — with a soundbite from me, in which I say I think it’s hard to pick a front-runner in the Best Novel category. All four books have been well received: Yellow Blue Tibia seems to have a critical mass of momentum behind it, Ark is a consecutive nomination for a previous winner of the Award, Lavinia is considered by many to be a masterwork by a multi Hugo- and Nebula-winner, and The City & The City has tremendous word-of-mouth. If you put a gun to my head I’d probably pick Mieville as the winner (I think it may be his year for a Hugo, too), but I wouldn’t want to put a lot of money on it. Nader Elhefnawy also has some thoughts on the shortlists here, and there’s an io9 post here.

2. Hugo Awards

Speaking of Hugo Awards, nominations are now open, until 13th March. Cheryl Morgan has a guest post at the Feminist SF Blog about “Hugo voting on the cheap” — which sadly means how to become an informed voter without having to buy a lot of books, rather than actual cheap voting memberships — with lots of recommendations for potential nominees. Joe Sherry has posted a draft of his Hugo ballot. I think this is a good idea, and will probably follow suit later this week.

3. The David Gemmell Legend Award

Nic Clarke reviews last year’s inaugural Legend Award shortlist for Strange Horizons. Part one of the review can be found here:

What do they mean by “in the spirit of David Gemmell”? According to the same web page, what they are looking for is something that grabs the reader immediately, with pace (“you know, books that you’re STILL reading at three in the morning!”), characters to root for, and convincing world-building. Stories, in other words, that take hold and won’t let go until the final page—the reason we all started reading fantasy in the first place.

Quality of prose goes unmentioned, but I’m afraid it won’t in this review; writing that makes me want to stab my own eyes out tends to interfere with my desire to still be reading at three in the morning. I’m fussy like that.

Part two is here, and there’s a related post by Mark Charan Newton here:

This, it seems, is one of the only actual comparisons of the fantasy titles that were shortlisted. I made noises at the time that no one was talking about the content of the books, and so here we go at last.

I must admit to finding it bizarre that any award can have a shortlist where titles are barely compared to each other. How can you call a book the “best” without such an analysis? Getting as many people to vote online seems a spurious way to go about this, when clearly no one could have read so many titles.

I’m not being grouchy here – please don’t misunderstand.

This is where my arguments lie: we bitch and moan about why we – the fantasy genre – are not taken seriously. But when we’re not going to compare and contrast, and dig into the content of some of the big fantasy titles of the year, how can the fantasy genre expect to better itself year on year? How can it expect to gain more respect? (If you don’t care for respect, then I guess that’s the end to my argument.) But we all know that we posses rather self-conscious moments, we fantasy readers, if we’re honest.

4. The William L. Crawford Award

Press release at Locus Online:

Jedediah Berry has been named the winner of the 2010 William L. Crawford Award for first novel The Manual of Detection. The Award, presented annually at The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, is for a new fantasy writer whose first book appeared the previous year. This year’s conference will be March 17-21, 2010 in Orlando FL.

The award committee shortlisted Deborah Biancotti’s collection A Book of Endings, Kari Sperring’s novel Living with Ghosts, and Ali Shaw’s novel The Girl With Glass Feet, and wanted to commend two other authors whose works were ineligible this year but were highly regarded: Robert V.S. Redick, whose The Red Wolf Conspiracy appeared in 2008 and whose The Ruling Sea appears in 2010, and Michal Ajvaz, whose The Other City originally appeared in Czech in 1993 but was first translated into English by Gerald Turner in 2009.

A good winner, and a strong shortlist, I reckon.

London Meeting: Jim Burns

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Jim Burns (SF artist, winner of the Hugo award for best professional artist three times—the only non-American ever to have won it—and winner of 12 BSFA Awards), who will be interviewed by Pete Young.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes. See you there, I hope.

Future meetings:
24th February: David Edgerton interviewed by Shana Worthen
24th March: BSFA Awards discussion*
21st April: Kari Sperring interviewed by Tanya Brown**

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays
** Note that this meeting is on the third Wednesday

2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

Ark cover Lavinia cover
The City & The City cover Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Best Short Fiction
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 220)
The Push by Dave Hutchinson (Newcon Press)
Johnnie and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith (Interzone 222)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz)
The Beloved Time of Their Lives” [pdf link] by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia (in The Beloved of My Beloved, Newcon Press)
The Assistant” by Ian Whates (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)

Best Artwork
Alternate cover art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (art project), Nitzan Klamer
Emerald” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Cover of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, by Stephan Martinière, jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Cover of Interzone 220, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 224, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 225, Adam Tredowski

Best Non-Fiction
Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan [Note: withdrawn from consideration]
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel category, and six nominees in the Best Short Fiction and Best Artwork categories due to ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, Odyssey.

The Books of 2009

This is, unfortunately, a somewhat more abbreviated account than I had originally intended. Plan A was to do a complete run-down of everything I read in 2009, trying to get some sense of how my part of the elephant felt. Plan B is a top ten list. Well, a top ten list and some stats.

Stats first, then. I read 69 books in 2009; slightly down on the last few years. Of these, 80% were sf or sf-related non-fiction; 54% were first published in 2009, 39% were by Brits, 41% by women and 22% by people of colour (or, 45% were by white men). Of those books not published in 2009, discovery of the year was perhaps Rana Dasgupta, whose linked story suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005) I picked up somewhat on a whim, and is still lingering with me now; though the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear (2002 trans. 2005) gives it a run for its money, and the book-I-should-have-got-around-to-long-before-now award goes without question to Middlemarch. Also worth mentioning here: Lao She’s Cat Country (1932, trans. 1970), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To … (1977), which, of the fiction I’ve read by Russ, is the work whose impressiveness is least caveated by the passage of time, and the one I would recommend to those not yet familiar with her. Disappointments in this group were relatively few; neither Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2006) nor Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) quite lived up to my expectations of them, but as dispraise goes, that’s pretty mild.

Onward! The focus of my interest, of course, is the subgroup of sf or sf-related books published in 2009. I should say that I’m using an inverted version of the Hugo Award’s definition of 2009, here: that is, if it was either first published in English in 2009, or first published in the UK in 2009, I’m considering it a 2009 book. Consequently, including one book read in 2008, and five read this year, there are 41 books in this subgroup, of which 44% are by Brits, 86% are fiction (of which, making broad assignments, 42% are sf, 58% fantasy), 52% are by women, and 17% by people of colour (leaving the white-man percentage roughly the same, at 42%). I had a good year’s reading: it’s hard to pick a top ten that leaves out such books as the first volume of Hoshruba (whether or not I will have the stamina to read further volumes); Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (first published 1993; a book that addresses some of the same themes as China Mieville’s The City & The City, but to my mind more successfully); Chris Beckett’s Marcher (a very clever, and admirably restrained, many-worlds novel); Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (a first novel that deserves greater praise than “very promising”, though it is); Deborah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings (a first collection of which the same can be said); Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (mild reservations about the shape of the novel aside, a delight to read); Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (on which I have no doubt I will continue to chew for some time); Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (an evocative wilderness novel, and a fascinating exercise in sustained uncertainty of genre: I hope to write this up in more detail at some point); Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet (despite my reservations about it); Marcel Theroux’s Far North (under-appreciated, I think); or Jo Walton’s Lifelode (on which I agree with Walton’s afterword, which admits that the book it becomes is lesser than the book she wanted to write; but the first half of the novel, which is closest to her intentions, is extraordinary; one of those books that really should not have appeared only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold being the ones that might attract most disagreement – but only a handful stood out as genuine disappointments. Nancy Kress can do better than Steal Across the Sky; and I certainly hope that Jesse Bullington can do better than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. There are, of course, a great many books I didn’t get to: of those, the ones whose omission I feel most keenly are probably Stephen Baxter’s Ark (given how highly I rated Flood), Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (because I haven’t yet read Mythago Wood; yes, yes, I know), and Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit (because I told myself I’d read the Aleutian trilogy first – yes, yes, I know!).

But anyway: here are the ten books that I recommend most heartily, in alphabetical order by author.

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: a first novel of great ambition and remarkable power, and a work of science fiction that feels grounded in our present like nothing else I read this year.
  • The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham: the most purely enjoyable 2009 book I’ve read, a marriage of the political and the epic that builds fruitfully on the already-solid foundation provided by The War with the Mein (2007).
  • Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin: beautiful, wise, generous, and all the other words that are so regularly applied to Le Guin’s fiction.
  • UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo: a short, relatively quiet novel that, as I said when I first read it, suggests much with its sparing narration, and provokes much in its reader; or at least in me.
  • Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald: the opposite of Guo, in some ways: bold, vigorous stories that deepen and strengthen McDonald’s vision of a future India.
  • The Ask & The Answer by Patrick Ness: a sequel that delights in not providing more of the same; desperately uncomfortable at times, but – I’m allowed to use this once, right? – unputdownable.
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: a brilliant ghost story, but also (this is not said enough about Oyeyemi, I think) at times, brilliantly funny: serious enough to know when to be playful.
  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson: for all that Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary writers, I keep missing my chance to write about his work at any length. But between them Adam Roberts and John Clute have said much of what I would want to say about Galileo’s Dream: the marvellous sanity of its fictive universe, the skill with which it dissects time, memory and history, the clarity of its portraiture.
  • The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh: a collection whose only real flaw is that it doesn’t collect all of Singh’s fiction: but what is here should be read.
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield: surely, by this point, I don’t need to say anything else about this one. Inventive; unsentimental; captivating.

Seven Bites of Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels coverOne. Tender Morsels is not a short story. This is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating for any reader of Margo Lanagan who, like me, has had their expectations of her fiction shaped by the work collected in White Time (2000), Black Juice (2004), and Red Spikes (2006). There is a temptation, after a particularly striking encounter with a writer working in one form, to be disappointed that their work in the other form does not have the same zing of newness: to feel that, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl “merely” explores in greater depth a future already presented in stories collected in Pump Six; or, in the other direction, that Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days “merely” adds a spectrum of perspectives to the world of River of Gods. I do not claim to be immune; I feel the lure of both those opinions, though I try to resist them. And in that sense, Tender Morsels is “merely” another fairytale retold with an emphasis on the grit and grim of the real. But, you know, longer.

Two. Re-reading “Snow White and Rose Red” once done with Tender Morsels, it is a real joy to discover how clever, and how sly, Lanagan’s revisioning is. The spine of the Grimm tale – two girls, living with their mother in a cottage in the forest, have encounters with a friendly bear and a wicked, treasure-hungry dwarf – is retained in Tender Morsels. But in Lanagan’s novel, the realm in which this takes place is a secondary world, a personal heaven to which the mother, Liga, escapes from a horrific childhood in a “real” world: this is both a necessary escape, and the sort of sanitisation of reality performed by the Brothers Grimm on the later editions of the tales they collected. The bear (multiple bears, actually, in the novel) and the dwarf are intrusions from the “real” world, and eventually harbingers of heaven’s end; and, most importantly, the novel shows us the story before and after the fairytale.

Three. Lanagan remains an extraordinary writer of action, of things happening. Her language itself can create unease; it is only very carefully euphonious, far more often tending to beauty of a guttural, earthy sort, particularly in dialogue or first-person narration, suited to action and discussion. (Less suited to description and reflection, which occasionally seemed to me a weakness.) But this is not to say she is explicit. Much attention has been lavished on the first few chapters, which cover Liga’s upbringing. She is repeatedly raped by her father (leading to several forced abortions, and eventually to Branza, the novel’s Snow White); after her father’s death, she is raped by a gang from a nearby village (leading to Urdda, Rose Red). Reading about this is even more harrowing than it may sound, in part because it does not seem to be leading anywhere (perhaps because a direction would mean a hope of escape), but primarily because Lanagan writes around the terrible events so effectively. Miscarriages endured by Liga are covered (“She tried to stop the baby, but it had been poised to rush out, and so it rushed out, with a quantity of wet noise”, 15), as is the aftermath of rape (how Liga “washed and washed her cringing parts”, how “to walk was to hurt”, 47); but the rapes themselves are not. That’s left to us to imagine.

Four. The novel seems to me to be built around a series of stark contrasts, set up early in the book. Most obviously, there is the contrast between Liga’s two worlds: that defined by her father – “he had run the world for her” (37) – and that defined by her own desire. The former is a place of relentless brutality, the latter somewhere Liga can be utterly trusting of everyone and everything around her. The tranquillity of this world is equally relentless in its way, and bold Urdda, in particular, grows to chafe against it, and eventually leaves. Men and women are divided by perspective: every scene told from a man’s point of view is first-person, while every scene told from a woman’s point of view is third-person. The logic behind this division never quite became clear to me; it could be an effective way of underlining the privilege accorded the male gaze in the novel’s “real” world, but the first-person perspectives persist even when the men are in Liga’s heaven; and a mild criticism of the novel might be that we are never given access to the perspectives of the men who actually commit the worst acts. But perhaps the argument should be that the perspectives we are given access to confirm that not all men are beasts, because man and animal are also contrasted, as young men taking part in a local ritual intended to “civilise” them find themselves transported to Liga’s heaven and transformed into bears. One such is noble, the other rather less so. And so on.

Five. The final section of Tender Morsels – when both daughters and Liga are back in the “real” world – is, I think, the best, but not without its perplexing moments. There are two points in the novel at which Lanagan seems to give her characters a freebie. The first is Liga’s salvation, when she is given the means to access her heaven by a force that is never explained; if the characters were religious, it would be an act of God. The second comes in the latter stages of the book, after Liga tells Urdda how her daughter was conceived. Urdda becomes (not surprisingly) incandescently angry; it is revealed that she has magical talent; in her sleep, unconsciously, she causes five voodoo dolls to go out into the village and gang rape each man involved in her mother’s ordeal; and in the morning she wakes, unknowing, and “fresh of it all”; “Yesterday”, she says, “I thought I would burn with that rage for the rest of my life. Today – well, I have no particular feelings about it at all” (407). She acknowledges that this is “not natural”; but it still feels far too consoling. Life does not provide vengeance so clean, or so easily.

Six. Urdda’s vengeance stands out all the more because most of the second half of Tender Morsels is devoted to questioning and — partially — deconstructing its earlier dichotomies. When the family are first reunited in the “real” world, there is a sense of right finality, as though the story is ending; yet at the same time you can feel, between your thumb and forefinger, the thickness of pages still to go. And so you conclude, because you are back in the world where Liga was so abused – because that horror, as Urdda puts it, is sitting “lumped in the past … impossible to ignore” (389) – that something bad is going to happen. It never does. But the expectation leads to some scenes of almost unbearable tension, often revolving around Branza. Unlike her sister, Branza never chafed against Liga’s heaven. She is desperately unworldly; in Gwyneth Jones’ resonant phrase, a true veteran of utopia, confused by the tragic distance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. So when she goes for a walk on her own – having been warned against such excursions by her sister – we fear for her. And, sure enough, she is menaced; yet she stands her ground, and bites one of the boys, and the rest are cowed. She walks home safely. Liga is delighted by the sight of her daughter’s accomplishment — “In some way, she had bested them; they were afraid of her, look!” (337) — but another character, standing at Liga’s shoulder, remarks that there’s nothing like being raised in heaven to give someone false confidence. The moment is punctured: we have to agree with that. And yet, Branza walks.

Seven. As Gary K Wolfe puts it in his review, the central theme of Tender Morsels is “the balance between the brutal abuse Liga herself has suffered and the overprotectiveness of the world she has made”. For Abigail Nussbaum, this leads to the novel’s major flaw: that it tells two stories, and that the morals of those stories clash:

Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story–acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain–is precisely the lesson one shouldn’t learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It’s one thing to say ‘unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,’ but it’s quite another thing to say ‘being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.’

I don’t entirely disagree with this, as the discussion above of Urdda’s vengeance – which I think can be read as existing to address the rage and indignation produced by Liga’s story, and sweep it under the carpet – may suggest. But it does strike me as risky to draw such direct morals from a novel which is, at base, about revising one of the most moralistic forms of literature there is, and which seems to me to so carefully manage the possible meanings of its events, inviting interrogation. Still, the novel has a happy ending, or something very close to it, despite the well-established darkness of the world — Wolfe writes of “a note of almost astonishing sweetness”, while Meg Rosoff describes a book that “celebrates human resilience” with “audacity and grace” — and a reader does have to be able to accept this as honest. For my part, the security the women achieve, while limited by the nature of the society in which they live, seems convenient but not tenuous. As the novel closes, Urdda is (thanks to the revelation of her magical talent) well on her way to being a powerful witch, Branza is marrying the story’s most noble man (who she met, as a bear, in Liga’s heaven), for love, and Liga is sharing a good house with another witch, who (thanks to the dwarf’s trips to Liga’s heaven) is independently wealthy. As to lessons, if we must have one I think I’m closer to David Hebblethwaite: neither Liga’s childhood nor her heaven makes a good guide to living in the world; neither should be trivialised, but they must not be the whole of the story. Or as Rosoff asks: is it possible to return to life from unspeakable trauma? Answering that question without seeming patronising is a tricky needle to thread, but I’d say Lanagan manages it much more than not; and that if you’re looking for a guide to living in the world, you could do worse than look at Tender Morsels.

Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

In another world, Dollhouse is one of the best and most significant TV sf series ever made. In our world … well, we got what we got. It’s still Whedon’s most ambitious and provocative metaphoric construct, but rather deeply flawed; something of a stitched-together monster shambling towards the finish line. The second half of the show’s second season is, though only “fast” by the glacial standards of most American serial television, rather inelegant; as with Serenity, you can see where they’d have stretched things out, given more time (that “three months later” was a dead giveaway), and where compression has prevented them from dotting every narrative i and crossing every t. And, perhaps most damaging, there’s a lack of attentiveness to the givens of the original premise, the pervasive, corrosive suffering that comes from treating identity as a commodity, in favour of Excitement. (Of course the show was never all that attentive to such things; but less and less as time has gone on, I feel.)

So we come to “The Hollow Men”, which wraps up the present-day thread of the story with Our Heroes taking out Rossum’s HQ, and at this point if you don’t buy into the underlying argument being developed, things really have become somewhat incoherent. But thematically it’s all there. The story we have been watching, the story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow), turns out to be a story told by the villain, all the characters – dolls like Whiskey and originals like Topher alike – dancing to his tune, as they have had dolls dancing to theirs. And said villain himself isn’t exactly a free agent, rather running scared of the brainpocalypse, trying on the one hand to bridle the technology he’s brought into the world, to delay the inevitable, and on the other to create an escape route. It’s for the latter that he tells his story, constructing the “specialness” of Caroline and of Echo out of his own obsession, which of course makes it meaningless – hollow – a closed loop. So the confirmation that the genie is out of the bottle is predictable, but worthwhile, the last nail in the coffin of Echo-as-saviour. Nobody in Dollhouse is free; society is the shambling beast, working out its death knells through the characters. The slingshot of the last two minutes takes us ten years into the chaotic, dystopian future, the setting for “Epitaph Two” which will (presumably) provide some mitigation of all this bleakness; although I for one hope that it calibrates the amount of consolation it provides very carefully.

Posted in SF, TV. Tags: , , , . 7 Comments »

And As Long As We’re In An Awards Mood …

Have the nominees for the Philip K Dick Award:

BITTER ANGELS by C. L. Anderson (Ballantine Books/Spectra)
THE PRISONER by Carlos J. Cortes (Ballantine Books/Spectra)
THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO by Eric Garcia (Harper)
THE DEVIL’S ALPHABET by Daryl Gregory (Del Rey)
CYBERABAD DAYS by Ian McDonald (Pyr)
CENTURIES AGO AND VERY FAST by Rebecca Ore (Aqueduct Press)
PROPHETS by S. Andrew Swann (DAW Books)

Interesting-looking list, though the only one I’ve read is the McDonald.

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