Vector 269

What a welcome sight! The post just arrived, and with it, the latest BSFA mailing.  In addition to Vector, there’s an issue of Quantum, the BSFA’s occasional newsletter; and a paper copy of the ballot for the BSFA Awards (also available online).

There’s also a NewCon Press sampler which includes excerpts from The Outcast and the Little One by Andy West and Kim Lakin-Smith’s BSFA best novel-nominated Cyber Circus. Ian Whates assures me that the booklet went to press well before the BSFA Award nominations for best novel were known and announced.

Lest the prompt arrival of the paper copy of the ballot worry anyone, we’re still planning to do a short story booklet of stories nominated for the BSFA award for the best short story of 2011; but the logistics of that take just long enough that it’ll be coming in the mailing after this one.

This issue of Vector is partially a followup to the poll which Niall ran last year, on the best sf novels by women written in the previous decade. It also has Adam Roberts’ reflections on writing music entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and Andrew M Butler’s review of the three versions of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which recently closed at the Tate Britain. (The review was printed here on Torque Control in late December to make sure it would  be read before the show closed!)

Vector 269 is labeled the Spring 2012 issue, which means we seem to have skipped winter entirely, despite what today’s chilly weather seems to imply.

Vector 269 contains…

Women SF Writers: An Endangered Species? - Cheryl Morgan
Death and Transcendence in the “Forged” Novels of Justina Robson – Tony Keen
Telling the World: The Exodus Trilogy by Julie Bertagna - Niall Harrison
Single-Gendered Worlds In Science- Fiction – Better For Whom? - Victor Grech with Clare Thake-Vassallo, and Ivan Callus
On Science Fiction Music - Adam Roberts
John Martin: Apocalypse – A Review - Andrew M Butler

Kincaid in Short – Paul Kincaid
Resonances – Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites – Andy Sawyer
Picture This – Terry Martin

The BSFA Review – edited by Martin Lewis

The BSFA 2011 Shortlists!

The BSFA is delighted to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2011 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Best Short Fiction
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Interzone 233, TTA Press)
The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July)
Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley (Kameron Hurley’s own website)
Covehithe by China Mieville (The Guardian)
Of Dawn by Al Robertson (Interzone 235, TTA Press)

Best Non-Fiction
Out of This World: Science Fiction but not as we Know it by Mike Ashley (British Library)
The SF Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls and David Langford (website)
Review of Arslan by M J Engh, Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions blog)
SF Mistressworks, ed. Ian Sales (website)
Pornokitsch, ed. Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (website)
The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who (Foundation Studies in Science Fiction), ed. Graham Sleight, Tony Keen and Simon Bradshaw (Science Fiction Foundation)

Best Art
Cover of Ian Whates’s The Noise Revealed by Dominic Harman (Solaris)
Cover and illustrations of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls by Jim Kay (Walker)
Cover of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama by Pedro Marques (PS Publishing)
Cover of Liz Williams’s A Glass of Shadow by Anne Sudworth (Newcon Press)

This year a number of members nominated the British Library’s Out of This World exhibition for the Non-Fiction Award. The Committee has decided that this does not meet the eligiblity criteria for the award. However, in recognition of the support it has received and its success in encouraging people to explore and enjoy science fiction (one of the primary purposes of the BSFA Awards) will be giving it the status of Specially Commended. In addition, the accompanying book by Mike Ashley made the shortlist and can still be voted on, along with the other nominees.

***

Members of the BSFA and Eastercon will now have the opportunity to vote on the shortlists.

Advance voting forms will be posted out to BSFA members, who will have until 2nd April 2012 to get their nominations in. They can do that by post, email or online form, ranking each of the nominees according to their personal preference: 1 for favourite, 2 for second favourite etc. They don’t have to rank all nominees and they don’t have to vote in every category. The awards ballot is available online here. After 2nd April, the only way to get your voice heard will be to attend the Eastercon and grab a ballot form from your pack or the BSFA desk. Deadline for voting at Eastercon will be 12 noon on the day of the ceremony, the date of which will be confirmed shortly.

Congratulations to the nominees!

Vector 265

Saturday morning’s post brought with it Vector 265, at long last. Not just Vector: the mailing includes a booklet in memory of Rob Holstock, edited by Niall Harrison; the BSFA Awards booklet, with all of the shortlisted short stories; and a ballot for voting on the BSFA awards.

Vector 265 is the last one edited by Niall, and it’s a hefty one, a rich tribute to Stephen Baxter, plus book reviews, edited by Martin Lewis. For those of you not currently BSFA members, here is what you’re missing out on:

Table of Contents
“That Cosmological Feeling: An Interview with Stephen Baxter”
“Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Cycle: No Coming Home”, Jonathan McCalmont
“The Settee and the Stars: Stephen Baxter and the Dilemma of Scale”, Gary K Wolfe
“An Atomic Theory of Baxter’s Fiction”, Adam Roberts
“Three Colours NASA: Reflections on Stephen Baxter’s ‘NASA’ trilogy”, Simon Bradshaw
“Putting the Past into the Future: The Time’s Tapestry sequence”, Tony Keen
“Foundation’s Favourite: Stone Spring”, Andy Sawyer
“Baxter’s People”, Niall Harrison
“Giant Killer Rodents in Space Armour, With Guns: the other side of Stephen Baxter”, Graham Sleight

“First Impressions”, Martin Lewis
Book reviews edited by Martin Lewis
Orgasmachine by Ian Watson (Newcon Press, 2010) – reviewed by
Justin Robson
Shine, edited by Jetse de Vries (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Anthony Nanson
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2010) -
reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010) – reviewed
by Tony Keen

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2010) – reviewed by
Michael Abbott
The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2010) -
reviewed by Martin Potts
Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009)
- reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett and The Last Reef by
Gareth L Powell (Elastic Press, 2008) – reviewed by Dave M Roberts
The Holy Machine (Corvus, 2010) and Marcher (Cosmos
Books, 2008) by Chris Beckett – reviewed by Jim Steel
Inside/Outside – Chris Beckett interviewed by Paul Graham Raven
Major Carnage by Gord Zajac (ChiZine Publications, 2010) -
reviewed by Shaun Green
Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk (ChiZine Pubications, 2010)
- reviewed by Graham Andrews
The Nemesis List by RJ Frith – reviewed by Ben Jeapes
The Noise Within by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010) – reviewed by
Stuart Carter
Brave Story and The Book Of Heroes by Miyuke Miyabe
(Haikasoru, 2007 and 2009) – reviewed by Cherith Baldry
WE by John Dickinson (David Fickling Books, 2010) – reviewed by
Donna Scott
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (Penguin, 2010) – reviewed by CB Harvey
Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2010) – reviewed
by Anne F Wilson
The Iron Hunt, Darkness Calls and A Wild Light by
Marjorie M Liu (Orbit, 2008-10) – reviewed by Amanda Rutter
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan (Orbit, 2009) – reviewed by
Alan Fraser
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster, 2010) -
reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Office Of Shadow by Mathew Sturges (Pyr, 2010) – reviewed
by AP Canavan
Lord Of The Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier (Orbit, 2010) -
reviewed by Lynne Bispham

BSFA Awards Shortlist 2011

Anyone who joined the BSFA recently may end up with the wrong impression as to how frequently mailings occur, inasmuch as we expect the next one to be sent out within the next month-or-so. It’s all still quarterly, however.

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.

Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
[...]
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.

Notes on a Shortlist

Almost everyone, it seems, agrees about at least one thing about this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award, the winner of which is announced tonight: that it’s a good shortlist. (That post now updated with more review-links, by the way.) I’m not about to break that hardening consensus, and may even raise the stakes slightly. I think the 2010 shortlist is one of the very good ones; for me, as a shortlist as a whole, probably the strongest since 2003, when Light vied against The Scar and the ultimate winner, The Separation. Two of the novels — Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream — have been hailed as returns to form, two more — China Mieville’s The City & The City and Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia — as their authors’ best to date; and the remaining two — Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Marcel Theroux’s Far North — are certainly not without their champions. Perhaps the most pleasing thing about the shortlisted novels is their variety. There are more and less straightforwardly science fictional works, set in times ranging from the seventeenth century to hundreds of years hence, and if you’re not calling them sf, you could call these books crime novels, Westerns, comedies, and adventure stories. (Or just novels, of course.) It’s a good showcase. But a novel is a prose narrative with something wrong with it; and so, though it’s harder to do than it was last year, we must look for what’s wrong with these offerings.

What it isn’t, for once, is very British, and the most British book on the list — if only for its blokeish humour — is the one most people throw out of the balloon first. Retribution Falls has plenty to recommend it, particularly pace and, in its retro-magical setting, colour, and is welcome on the shortlist as an adventure story, a form too often given critical short shrift that nevertheless requires considerable craft. I kick it out of the balloon first as well, though, not for being what it is, but for flirting with smeerpdom. It seems to me that the story Retribution Falls tells is not sufficiently specific to its fantastic content: that it could be retold in another time or place without changing much more than the vocabulary. (I’d say this is partly where the omnipresent Firefly comparisons are coming from.) And that’s not enough to be the best science fiction novel of the year, the book put forward as an example of what science fiction can be and can do. There’s also the question of the book’s female characters, which aren’t exactly depicted on equal terms with the men, although on that point I’m willing to give the novel more credit for self-awareness than, say, Nic or Abigail are (although this is not to mention the question of the book’s sole near-silent ex-slave character of colour, which is harder to excuse). Such factors must be considered when assessing the book, I’d argue; the political is as inextricable a part of literary judgement as the aesthetic.

An author usually impeccable on both fronts is Gwyneth Jones, whose Spirit — being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo — would seem to also risk smeerpdom, but which actually passes at least that test with flying colours. I haven’t read the original, but I know its outline, and Jones does not seem to be in thrall (and in the book’s last third, seems to revise her model quite inventively, if not, in the end, entirely convincingly); nor have I read the major preceding work in Jones’ own oeuvre, the Aleutian trilogy, but there to I didn’t feel the absence of context particularly strongly. That is: Spirit is a full, contained science fiction novel. It’s about that most speculative of subjects, identity, or at least is at its best, so far as I’m concerned, when it hews closest to this theme. There’s much here about what defines us, and what might define us, in an era when space travel that treats mind and matter as interchangeable information — the raw stuff of self — and much about individuals who are defined, usually as Other. The novel’s great weakness is a lack of consistency. It really is a bit all over the place, veering from political intrigue to action-led set piece to introspective periods of what is glossed as “poetic time”; the latter are the most reliably good, and a section half-way through the novel set in a prison is seriously impressive, but the quality is never as even as it should be. A lesser but still significant weakness, I think, is a lack of freshness, a sense of being a bit second-had. Sometimes this is to good effect. I can see how Jones’ Star Trek aliens play into her theme — the alien understood as an element of humanity; or, in this case, perhaps more accurately humanity understood as an element of the alien — and I don’t want to take, for instance, Jones’ playfulness with gender, which delivers plenty of welcome perceptual jabs, for granted. But on balance, even if some aspects of the book aren’t seen as often as we might hope, there seems to me too little here that hasn’t been seen before.

Which brings me to China Mieville’s The City & The City, whose central conceit has clearly already entered the canon of Really Neat Speculative Ideas. What is so very neat about it, it seems to me now, and the novel’s greatest accomplishment, is how successful it is at exposing readers’ assumptions. To talk about The City & The City in any sort of depth is to reveal with uncommon clarity how you think about the world, about people and about fiction: all of which are always worth doing. But it is for me a less satisfying novel — certainly a less satisfying science fiction novel; I do think it reads much more interestingly as fantasy — than it a political act. Its plot is seldom remarked upon, although I note that in general this aspect seems to pick up more praise from readers who spend more time with crime novels than I do; and its narrator contains no great depths, and to my ear just a bit of strain in his voice. It’s primarily for the neatness of its conceit, I’d guess, that the novel quite deservedly won the BSFA Award — and, not surprisingly, it’s the front-runner in Liz’s poll. (The BSFA Award is not a great predictor of success in the Clarke Award, though, with only four books ever having done the double.) Mind you, if it does win, it will be a remarkable event, making Mieville the first author to win the Clarke Award three times; and three times within a decade, no less.

Now it gets really hard. Is Yellow Blue Tibia Adam Roberts’ best novel? Well, that probably depends on why you read Adam Roberts novels. There is certainly something to the idea that it’s his most relaxed, owned novel — as Jonathan put it, the work that combines Roberts’ various hats, as a writer of novels, histories, spoofs and criticism, “into one magnificent red satin topper”. In the honorable tradition of sf novels about science fiction, it surely has a spot marked out for it; it is funny; it has things to say about totalitarianism as well; it’s as technically well-formed a novel as you could wish; and its science fictional conceit delights me. To date the major charge against Yellow Blue Tibia has been Catherynne Valente’s hard-to-ignore assessment of “painfully inept cultural appropriation” (on which Roberts lightly comments here). That is: it is hamfisted as a depiction of Russian-ness. To me, the novel seems much more about popular conceptions of Russian-ness than about the thing itself. As Dan puts it, River of Gods would have been both a poorer and less honest novel if it had been written primarily with reference to depictions of India, but I don’t see that Yellow Blue Tibia is trying to be River of Gods, and I’m a little baffled that anyone tries to take it as such. It seems to me far too ironic, too playful, to self-conscious to be taken as striving — as McDonald’s novel clearly does strive — for anything approximating that horrible concept, “authenticity”. (That, and cultural appropriation strikes me as most egregious when there is a severe power imbalance in favour of the person doing the writing; and I don’t see that between the UK and Russia.) That sense of play, indeed, is one reason I read Adam Roberts; but another is to be challenged, to have my expectations about fiction and the world in general confronted in some way or another. And on that score, Yellow Blue Tibia disappoints me, seems to have fewer edges not just than Roberts’ other novels, but than other books on this shortlist.

If The City & The City is a popular choice for the award, Far North is becoming something like the reviewer’s choice, with Dan, David, Nic and Abigail all leaning in that direction, and Martin revising his odds accordingly. And for all that it’s been a long time since “the mainstream book” went home with the Clarke Award — since The Sparrow in 1998 — my head thinks that this could be Far North‘s year. It has a purity of concept and execution matched by no other novel on the shortlist, save perhaps The City & The City, and Theroux’s offering is a substantially more interesting novel of character (which does tend to be, in the end, one of the things the Clarke goes for). In its pragmatic depiction of life after ecotastrophe it eschews judgement in a way that few other such novels are able to — as Abigail puts it, it shows The Road how it’s done — and its Zone is as provocative and memorably eerie a location as antecedents. (It is also, like the previous three novels, a work that draws on Eastern/Northern Asia for its affect — a huge region, of course, but there do seem to me to be some affinities between Spirit‘s Baykonur metropolis and Chinese-influenced culture, The City & The City‘s vaguely defined border location, Yellow Blue Tibia‘s Communist Russia, and Far North‘s Siberia. And, of course, the one novel I haven’t discussed has a European setting. This is not, as I said, the most British shortlist.) In all, Far North is a novel that’s easy to argue for and hard to argue against, which is why I think it will win: after all, my mostly strongly felt argument against it, like Amanda, is simply that I like Galileo’s Dream more.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, which ranges between Galileo’s lifetime and the medium-far future, is expansive and rough where Far North is contained and controlled. It is a long book and — like its protagonist — can be exasperating (although this does not mean that I agree with Rob Grant’s assessment that it is “written to impress rather than entertain“), but it nails the dismount. And more than any of the other books shortlisted, it’s the one I want to revisit. (Of course, the judges will have revisited it, and all the others.) This is partly just because Robinson’s model of human nature and culture is one I am quite strongly in sympathy with: that the world may not be sane, but that it behooves us to find as much sanity as we can, and struggle for more; that it is possible to be utopian without de-emphasizing the challenges to that position. And it’s partly because I want to explore how Robinson tackles the material that’s new to him — the alien — in more detail. But it’s mostly because I want to revisit the things that are specific to Galileo’s Dream that Galileo’s Dream does so extraordinarily well. The exploration of memory, of how human beings live in time; the science-fictional dreams that use the techniques of sf past to address the tropes of sf present; and most of all, the sophisticated analysis of what it means to write a biographical historical fiction, to intervene in the thoughts of a past life as a future traveller (or writer). You can feel the tension — can in fact see it develop over the course of the novel — between that idea of Galileo as we can imagine he might have been, and Galileo as we (as Kim Stanley Robinson) would like to be able to imagine he was. At the end of a decade that’s given us quite a lot of historical fiction novels about science, for me Galileo’s Dream stands as the best of them: and of the books on this shortlist, I think it contains the most beauty, and the most truth. And so I hope it wins this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award.

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.

Yellow Blue Tibia

Yellow Blue Tibia coverIt feels peculiar to be writing about this novel now, so this may be a slightly peculiar post. I am, as you probably know, a fan of Adam Roberts’ work; have been since his first novel. It can be hard work trying to convince others of his fiction’s appeal, hard work that I seem to undertake quite often. But I don’t admire all his books equally, of course, and, having had a period of, for one reason or another, reading two or three Roberts novels a year, about thirteen months ago and with no basis other than the blurb, I arrogantly decided that Yellow Blue Tibia sounded like relatively minor Roberts, and that I could afford to skip it to spend more time with other authors. I could catch up when it came out in paperback, maybe. This seemed a reasonable decision, for a while; the reviews I commissioned for Strange Horizons were lukewarm, for instance. (Although in retrospect the fact that Liz liked it should perhaps have clued me in.) Then, of course, came the summer, and Kim Stanley Robinson sticking his oar in, and suddenly everyone was talking about the book — it even made it to Newsnight Review. Come the end of the year, and it’s popping up on top ten lists, and people like Jonathan are saying things like “it is genuinely astounding” and “a real milestone not only for him as an author but for British genre writing in general”. Suddenly Yellow Blue Tibia is a book I need to read if I want to pretend to be informed about what happened in sf in 2009; and suddenly I’m in the odd position of coming to a Roberts novel with an external weight of positive opinion behind it; and in the perhaps more curious position of, having read it, thinking that yes, it’s good, but it’s not (for me) in the first rank of Roberts’ work.

Adding to the slightly odd feeling is my reaction to the narrator. Yellow Blue Tibia is framed as the autobiography (well, autobiography plus promotional pamphlet) of Konstantin Svorecky, a Russian science fiction writer who, in the 1940s, is along with other Russian sf writers recruited by Adrian Veidt Stalin to write an alien invasion narrative that can be used to give the Soviet populace an enemy to unite against; and who, forty years later, starts to encounter evidence that the story he worked on might be coming true.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is also Adam Roberts. He is repeatedly accused of being overly ironic, irreverent about everything, including his fiction:

“One thing I hate in this world and you are fucking it. You are an ironist.”
“An ironist?”
“Fundamentally, you take nothing seriously. You believe it is all a game. It was the same in your novels; they were never serious. They had no heart.” (122)

Roberts confesses to the same habit, and I’ve seen more reviews than I can count accusing his work of lacking heart. (For example, since I have it to hand, the review of Yellow Blue Tibia by Stephen Deas that will appear in the next Vector: “I have this idea that stories engage with readers … on an emotional level and … on an intellectual level … Yellow Blue Tibia is firmly entrenched at the latter end of the spectrum … Readers after an emotional connection may find it difficult to engage with the story.”) Svorecky’s voice, I would say, sounds closer to Roberts’ reviewing voice than any other narrator Roberts has written precisely because of its constant self-awareness. (And I would nearly swear, too, that Svorecky mentions translating the work of Robert Browning [on whom Roberts did his PhD] at some point; but I didn’t note the page, and can’t find it, so may be misremembering that.) Anyway, my reaction to this narrator is odd because I know Adam Roberts a little; enough, in fact, that in this venue calling him “Adam Roberts” or “Roberts”, feels disingenuous. Because I know he’s probably reading this, and I know that the rest of you know he’s probably reading this, and because I was exchanging emails about reviewing with him on the evening when I was finishing his novel.

More importantly, though: so what? Well, it’s probably obvious by this point that Yellow Blue Tibia is among other things a novel about science fiction; to be specific I’d say it’s a novel about a science-fictional way of seeing, about the way of seeing that sf creates. Svorecky deploys sf metaphors throughout: a character is described as having “triffid-thick legs” (142), water in the spent fuel pools in a nuclear reactor is “like the water that might fill the lakes of a distant planet in a science fiction magazine’s cover illustration” (185), and so forth. At various points the novel touches on how sf mis-represents the world: its tendency to genocide, for instance, the boys-own air it can give off. Important characters are scientologists, and the contradiction of UFOlogy – that millions believe they have experienced them; that they obviously cannot exist – is central to the novel. I feel rather guilty about enjoying sf novels that are so explicitly about sf – despite the fact that I enjoy digging out the ways in which any sf novel is about sf, the ways in which it argues – but if anything mitigates that in Yellow Blue Tibia it’s the fact that it’s about the broad cultural manifestations of sf, not (or only to a relatively small extent) about its narrow genre manifestations. So it makes perfect sense that its answer to the UFO question, its key science fiction conceit, quite brilliantly forces the narrative to contort itself according to the conventions of a big-budget sf action film — the narrative conveniences (a bomb is found almost as soon as Svorecky starts searching for it) and improbabilities (Svorecky survives fights and injuries that he really should be killed by) — and the absurdist conventions of Soviet speculative fiction such as The Master and Margarita. And, to be even more specific, because the narrator strikes me as being so Adam-ish, I can’t help but read the novel as to some extent a working-out of Adam’s ideas about what sf is and does: “built around the eloquence of the image, often oblique, fascinated with transcendence … and at its best actively corrosive of reality … a sense that the pre-eminence of SF’s ‘epiphanies’ … also entails a pre-eminence of laughter.” All that is in there, arising out of the contradictory understandings of the world that Yellow Blue Tibia holds in tension.

This is not a backlash. Yellow Blue Tibia is a good novel. It is funny, involving, intellectually crunchy, and has a Robot Stalin. I do tend to agree with Mike that the narrative is somewhat uneven; the middle does feel baggy, several of the comedic sequences do outstay their welcome just a little. That said, I disagree with Mike’s assessment that the final chapter is rushed; indeed it mostly made me feel rather smug for having figured out what was going on about half-way through the book, and I think Dan demonstrates quite well how thoroughly coherent the book is on the level of argument. (Other reviews: Clute, Cheryl Morgan, Adrienne Martini, Rich Puchalsky, Abigail, David, Scott Eric Kaufman.) Yet as Adam’s books go I prefer, in particular, The Snow, Gradisil, Splinter or Swiftly. This surely has as much to do with me as a reader as Adam as a writer. I think I like those books in particular because they are the ones that feel most open to me: a little ragged around the edges; they have more for me to poke at, more jags to irritate my mind. The very coherency of Yellow Blue Tibia is a little off-putting, particularly when it also produces a romantic resolution much more conventional, more emotionally transparent, than is usual in Adam’s books. I know that’s a consequence of form, a convention of the narratives Yellow Blue Tibia is playing with; and yet at the same time, because of how I have come to the book, because of how I know its author, it feels almost like a concession. Those are the contradictory positions Yellow Blue Tibia leaves me to reconcile.

On Hugos

A quick post this morning, since I’ve got to catch a train to York (to visit two-thirds of Eve’s Alexandria). So I leave you with two perspectives on this year’s Hugo Awards. Abigail Nussbaum writes about the Best Novel shortlist here (Zoe’s Tale and Saturn’s Children) and here (Little Brother, The Graveyard Book, and Anathem). Her final judgment?

In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book‘s flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It’s the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you’re interested, by Zoe’s Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn’s Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn’t have a chance). It’s hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year’s ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it’s safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I’m going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I’m suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

Adam Roberts, meanwhile, has written an open letter to sf fandom:

Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I’m not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They’re not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

Reynolds and Roberts on Today

I mentioned in the link post earlier this week that Adam Roberts and Alastair Reynolds had been on Today talking about space opera, and that you should listen soon because the link would expire. Turns out I was wrong about that: I’d thought it would be on the same 7-day Listen Again cycle as most of the Beeb’s output, but Today seems to have archives going back to 2003, which is rather good of them.

However! Enterprising and generous Torque Control reader Jessica Eastwood very kindly emailed me a transcript of the interview anyway; and since I think transcripts are A Good Thing anyway, for ease of reference, speed of consumption and so forth (not to mention that it would be just plain churlish not to use it), here it is.

Space Opera — Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts
Monday 29 June 2009 08.50

Evan Davis (presenter): Now, it’s a genre you may never have heard of: space opera. No singing, it’s derived from soap opera, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction, and it’s making a renaissance. To explain more, we’re joined now by a writer of it and a fan of it: Alastair Reynolds is an author who’s just signed a £1 million book deal for a 10-part space opera, and Adam Roberts is professor of English literature at Royal Holloway College. Good morning to you both. Alastair Reynolds, can you tell us what space opera is, for those who aren’t so familiar with it?

Alastair Reynolds: Well, space opera is basically science fiction with all the stops pulled out. It’s the kind of science fiction we think of when we think of films like Star Wars and Star Trek. We’re talking about action in the deep future; we’re out into the galaxy, we’re dealing with huge, epic scales, different civilisations, that kind of thing, you know, it’s not near future, it’s not dystopian.

ED: OK. And what’s your 10-parter going to be about?

Reynolds: Well it’s going to be lots of different books, it’s not sort of 10…

ED: They’ll be linked, won’t they, in some way they’ll be…?

Reynolds: Some of them will be linked. I’ve been writing a number of different books set in the same universe, which is a sort of projection of where we’ll be in about 500 years in terms of going out into the galaxy and finding out what’s out there, and I’ll be doing a little bit more in that universe.

ED: And my guess would be, having seen a bit of Star Trek and a little bit of Star Wars, that although it’s set in the deep future and in… a long way from planet Earth that very earthly themes and morality comes to play.

Reynolds: Yeah, ultimately it has to be about human beings or no-one’s going to read it. You want people you can relate to, characters you can focus on and empathise with, and indeed we get into, if you like, realistic political and social themes within science fiction – even though you’re dealing with massive spaceships and killer weapons, at the same time you can also make pertinent points about real world politics.

ED: About the here and now. Well Adam Roberts, from Royal Holloway College, what do you like about it?

Adam Roberts: Well what I like is that it’s… it’s this sense of wonder, it’s the transcendent possibilities, it’s the most imaginative form of literature that there is, and that’s true across the board of science fiction, but it’s something that’s on a much larger scale with space opera. I mean, space opera used to be a fairly disreputable sort of literature, it used to be very pulpy and rubbishy and stupid adventures and lantern-jawed space jockeys and green, bug-eyed monsters, but the new space opera, the kind of thing that Al writes, is much more interesting on… in literary terms but also kind of aesthetically; it’s about comprehending just how vast and enormous the universe we live in is.

ED: Well what’s the advantage, if you want to take an issue, I don’t know, like the world post-9/11, what’s the advantage of setting a piece of fiction around that in the middle of the universe thousands of years hence? Why’s it somehow better to do that than just having a novel about life here and now?

Roberts: The short answer is that science fiction is a metaphorical genre, so it’s about metaphors that articulate key, important questions, which is exactly what we’re talking about, and it turns out that it’s better to address these things metaphorically than it is to try and reproduce them in a literal way, that metaphors are more eloquent, they are better at touching what really matters to us about 9/11. If you get actual novels set … at that time and in that city, it gets bogged down in the specifics and the minutiae, whereas science fiction enables imaginative freedom to really get to the heart of the issue.

ED: To strip all the irrelevant details out and to see it for what it is. Alastair Reynolds, how much role does science play in what you write? How important is the science? Do you have to understand the laws of physics, for example?

Reynolds: Well I came from a science background so I… it’s always going to be there in my fiction, but it’s important to realise that there are many very, very good science fiction writers writing very… you know, very good works that are not coming from a science background. I think it’s a question of taste, really. I like to get the science as right as I can without constraining the story too much. So it’s, you know, things like, do we have faster-than-light travel or not? Physics says it’s probably going to be impossible, but then you get into other areas where you’re sort of playing around with, if you like, the limits of knowledge of science, and that’s where you can have a lot of fun because you’re sort of keying off from very, very out-there extrapolations in the very limits of what we know.

ED: And there’s money to be made in it, is there, Mr Reynolds?

Reynolds: Well, there seems to be! Yeah, we’re fortunate, I think, in Britain that science fiction is indeed enjoying something of a renaissance and this is something that’s been, I think, building slowly for 10 or 20 years. I mean, when Iain Banks emerged as a science fiction writer this was a sign that it was something you could do – you could take it seriously and yet still have a lot of fun.

ED: And Adam Roberts, the British are quite good at it, actually, aren’t they? Is that right?

Roberts: It’s… we do seem to be leading the charge at the moment, and particularly with this sort of writing, the sort of books that Al is writing, these grand, majestic space operas, the kind of universal themes; writers like Steve Baxter or Paul McAuley or Al himself or Justina Robson, they really are… I mean, speaking as a professor of literature at the University of London, these are some of the best writers around today working in this genre.

ED: I should pick up a few of these and read them. Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, thank you both.

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