World Fantasy Award Winners

Have been announced:

Best Novel: The City & The City by China Mieville
Best Novella: “Sea-Hearts” by Margo Lanagan
Best Short Fiction: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler
Best Anthology: American Fantastic Tales ed. Peter Straub
Best Collection: TIE: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and The Very Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe
Best Artist: Charles Vess
Special Award — Professional: Jonathan Strahan (for editing anthologies)
Special Award — Non-Professional: Susan Marie Groppi (for Strange Horizons)

Not, perhaps, the most surprising list of winners there’s ever been, but a good list for all that. Congratulations to all. I’m much more a fan of giving The City & The City awards as fantasy than as science fiction, although in my heart of hearts I’d still have liked In Great Waters to take it. And I am, of course, absolutely delighted with Susan’s win, which is both thoroughly deserved personally, and a brilliant cap to the magazine’s tenth year.

Short Story Club: “My Father’s Singularity”

The discussion for this week’s story might be interesting. Chad thinks it’s the best of the club so far:

This story’s a little difficult for me to approach objectively, because it hits a little close to home, in that I grew up in a small town, and went off to college, and when I go back nothing is the same as it was. [...]

With that as a disclaimer of sorts, I thought this was an excellent story. It nails the emotional target it’s aiming for, that sense of a difference that has grown up and can’t quite be overcome. Unlike a lot of first-person narratives, I can actually imagine a real person telling this story in more or less this way. The outlines of the future world are there in the background, but as the narrator says at one point, that’s not this story, so we don’t get the changes spelled out for us in any great detail.

It’s subtle and restrained, but all the more powerful for it. And I think this is the best story of the lot so far, by a good margin. Both the SF elements and the human elements are handled deftly, and fit together really well. Whether I read any more award-eligible short fiction or not, this will almost certainly be going on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.

Evan had some problems:

The embedded assumptions are maybe going to be less apparent or obnoxious to the non-American people; it might even be West Coast specific. Capitalist/libertarian-oriented, dully US-centric, assuming that each tech boom will be followed by another, the country is better than the city, manual work better than intellectual work, government is evil when not incompetent, etc., etc., so on and so forth. It circumscribes the world declaring that while it might be different, it can never really be better. I am against the golden age, as a human concept. The fact that we all feel it says something about us, rather than something about the world. If the story had been a dissection of this feeling through its blinkered and backwards-looking main character, it might have been something interesting, but it doesn’t even remain unexamined; it seems to be the explicit position of the story. [...]

Even putting aside the ideological underpinnings of the story, the failures of character would be enough to damn it, all on their own. Prose-wise, it feels under-baked, larded with a few too many stock phrasings.

Lois is in the positive camp:

This is a tale of loss, inevitable but unbearably sad. Here is another story in which the well-wrought characters are its heart. The emotion is genuine, the situation universal, the future too familiar in its disappointment.

And Pam Philips liked it:

The payoff moment comes when his father crosses a singularity of his own. All the technology at Paul’s command can’t undo the effects of age. While the situation is poignant, the tone of the story is restrained, as if it were asking permission to tug on my heartstrings.

It’s all right. You can tug.

But it didn’t work for Matt H:

Two major elements of the story, namely its narrator Paul and the future he’s moving into, are left mostly to the reader’s imagination. Paul comes off as a fairly cold fish with apparently no emotional attachments except a weak sense of filial duty. We are encouraged to think that Paul, after initial difficulties, has completely left his rural past behind and become wholly modern, but the world around him is given such scanty detail that the reader is left to guess what, if anything, that might imply. His father, theoretically the subject of the story, is given even less time. We learn he likes science fiction books, dogs, farming, and that’s about it. You’d think a man who read science fiction would have some sort of opinion about gene therapy or whatever the magic medicine of Paul’s future is, but the reader isn’t told anything that would clue us in to what he thought. Paul and Mona probably knew, but it doesn’t occur to either of them to mention his preferences when discussing his treatment.

Given how unimpressed I was with Paul, it’s not surprising that I didn’t find the conclusion of the story very moving. Paul, who only a moment ago was saying nothing bad ever happened to him, spends about three sentences coping with the fact his father (a man he was so close to he couldn’t bear to spend more than a day with him) can’t recognize him now. Then the story ends on a vaguely distasteful note by suggesting that getting Alzheimer’s is a singularity in the opposite direction from the SF kind. Perhaps it’s one last bit of characterization: Paul is so self-centered that he feels someone who no longer recognizes him has become something less than human.

So: which side are you on?

Short Story Club Reminder: “My Father’s Singularity”

So much for last week’s promise. (Interesting discussion, though.) Maybe I’ll do better with Brenda Cooper’s story this Sunday, “My Father’s Singularity“.

London Meeting: NK Jemisin

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is NK Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, its forthcoming follow-up The Broken Kingdoms, and the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated short story “Non-Zero Probabilities.” I’ll be doing the interview — so I hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it and have a question you’d like asked, feel free to leave a comment here.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

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 — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Short Story Club: “The Cage”

I have belatedly added my thoughts on last week’s story, so now on to “The Cage“, which as a couple of people note, appeared as part of a paranormal romance/urban fantasy month at Tor.com. This was a bit of a stumbling block for, say, Bob Blough, although it seems to have won him over:

“The Cage” by A.M. Dellamonica is more interesting than the urban fantasies and paranormal romances offered this month because it’s not simply regurgitating the tropes of those specific subgenres. Unfortunately, it does involve werewolves (albeit, a standard horror trope) and so I had to work hard to become interested in the story. The writing is much better and the characters are characters instead of ciphers, but the story about a young girl needing to be caged each month at the full moon is old and tired as well. The characters and writing style do make up for these cliches to a certain degree, so I give it a qualified thumbs up.

Matt Hilliard had issues with the worldbuilding:

In fact, I spent the entire story struggling with the worldbuilding. Not the picture it paints of Vancouver, which seemed readily believable (and probably based to a large degree on the author’s experience there), but of everything having to do with the werewolves. It seems that werewolves successfully hid the fact they even existed right up to 2002, but now are helpless in the face of anti-werewolf vigilantes. Most of the action of the story revolves around the struggle to deal with a baby werewolf, and while that was an interesting spin on the werewolf concept, one I hadn’t seen before, it again doesn’t make sense given the story’s invented history. The werewolf’s surrogate mother comes from a long line of werewolves, and yet she seems to be inventing procedures for raising a werewolf baby from first principles. She knows a werewolf society that will take the child in but for reasons never articulated they will only do so at age five, even though it’s clearly in their best interest to keep poorly constrained baby werewolves from bringing disrepute and thus further persecution on werewolves as a whole. Also, I don’t know anything about Canadian law, but the villain apparently traveled to Canada, found a werewolf’s associate, tortured this person to get the werewolf’s location, went there and killed her, and now is in danger of escaping conviction because he said it was self defense. How is that even remotely believable? What about the whole torture thing? Was that self defense too?

Lois Tilon wasn’t convinced by the premise either:

If werewolves, like the normal kind, are pack animals, isolating the puppy is not the way to raise it, and waiting until it is five years old would be much too late for socialization at its apparent rate of development.

The author seems to have gone to a certain amount of trouble to establish her protagonist’s sexual ambiguity in the first scenes, but if this was her intention, it was undercut by the illustration and the too-cutesy blurb: The littlest werewolf has two mommies.

Although it didn’t tip off Pam Phillips:

The tone is light, well sprinkled with chuckles. A pleasant bit of fluff, with just enough peril to keep it from getting too nice.

There is a bit of a gender detection test, which I flunked, despite several obvious clues. Worse, it wasn’t until the third read that I realized that almost everyone in the story is a woman. Except the villains. It all seems utterly normal, which is the point. Eventually, even a lazy reader like me will figure it out. For anyone else who feels dumb about this, the baby is a little clue-impaired himself.

Chad Orzel divines a lack of substance:

The closest thing to a Serious Point in this is having the innocent werewolf saved by Vancouver’s lesbian community banding together to throw a wild party, about which the best thing I can say is that it doesn’t hammer home the parallel between gay rights and supernatural rights as hard as it might. It’s not a story you can hate– it’s a little too insubstantial for that, plus there’s the adorable werewolf puppy– but there’s not a lot here to love, either. It’s cute and clever, and that’s about it.

Evan seems to have liked it most:

Since I don’t read a lot of PR books, I might be missing the people who’re trying to subvert the conventions of the genre, but this is the best piece that I’ve read so far in that vein. Werewolf hunters as psychopaths and sadists rather than bad-ass superheroes is a subversion that resonates with a lot of my complaints about the entire genre, not just its PR subsections (cyberpunk did us a disservice, I think).

The thematic spine of the story is, of course, the ties here between othered communities. Normally, an LGBT community (or another outsider community) springing to the defense of ‘monsterkind’ here would be a bit obvious, but somehow she manages it here without making it too terribly unsubtle. Normally outsider communities don’t like to go around borrowing trouble, but in larger cities, there’s a sense that the more people who band together the more powerful you become. So it makes sense, narrative-wise that the whole community that this women has access to would come out and stand up. This isn’t simple, of course. Just witness the difficulties transgender persons have had getting properly represented by the ‘mainstream’ LGBT organizations. It’d have amped up the realism a bit more to show the phonecalls that she made, so that we could see not just who came, but who couldn’t be bothered and who actively didn’t want to come.

I also like how government is presented as complicated, with multiple levels and factions. Too often, especially in literature coming from the notional left, or from any non-centrist ideological position, that government is one single block oozing evil and simpering henchmen. The evocation of this here wasn’t necessary to the plot, but I thought that it was a nice touch all the same.

Any more for any more?

Short Story Club Reminder: “The Cage”

Short Story Club continues this Sunday with “The Cage” by AM Dellamonica. And this time I will be organised enough to contribute, I promise.

Cheltenham 2010

My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.

Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:

Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?

This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.

There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.

The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)

After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.

Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:

British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with

All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?

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