Nominations for the BSFA Awards need to be received by midnight on Saturday 19th January. That’s a week on Saturday, so for those of you who haven’t made your nominations yet, I thought I’d put up some posts to jog your memories, and encourage you to do so.
First up is the non-fiction award, which after all the debate has reverted to a purer, simpler form:
The Best Non-Fiction award is open to any written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2007, in print or online.
There are two books that I’m pretty sure I’m going to nominate; I’m still deliberating about shorter works.
The first book is Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words. This has received, to be kind, mixed reviews, but I am impressed enough to think it deserves a nomination, though I probably wouldn’t vote for it as a winner. The two main criticisms of it, that I’ve seen, have to do with the selection criteria and with the accuracy. On the latter point, it seems to me you have to take any dictionary of citations as a work in progress, and any errors you find as an invitation to contribute a correction; and I didn’t find that many errors, though I’m not convinced that “infodump” was first used by Howard Waldrop as late as 1990. The earliest citation for “science fiction”, by the way, is from W. Wilson’s 1851 Little Earnest Book upon Great Old Subject [sic], which describes “Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true — thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.” That is, if you ask me, a rather fine way of putting it, and I would be surprised if there were citations from much earlier.
As to the selection criteria: Prucher includes five major categories of words: fanspeak, critical terms, sf terms used in a non sf sense (“space cadet”), words that were not coined in sf but are closely associated with it (“cyborg”), and — this may be the controversial one — words coined in sf if they are used either in multiple fictional universes, or in mainstream conversation. Which means “newspeak” (and, entertainingly, “frell”, although not “dren” or — my personal favourite Farscape-ism — “mivonks”), but no “dilithium”. Moreover, there’s nothing since 1999 — an arbitrary line had to be drawn somewhere, and the end of the 20th century is as good a place to draw one as any, but it does mean there’s no entry for “new weird” (or “mundane sf”, or “interstitial”; “slipstream”, being older, does get an entry). Within these parameters, so far as I can tell from a random sampling, the book does its job: I haven’t yet gone looking for something that falls within Prucher’s criteria but isn’t there. So the question is whether you think one or more categories should have been left out, or another category should have been added. I think having all the categories in one book adds richness, and makes simply browsing the thing more enjoyable than browsing a dictionary really should be. And when it comes down to it, this is a dictionary which, with a straight face, having explained in the “note on definitions” that for obvious reasons “they” and “their” are used as singular and plural third-person pronouns, avers that “Definitions of words relating to science fiction fans and writers, however, can be assumed to have human referents” (xxiv).
The second book is The Country You Have Never Seen, by Joanna Russ. Billed as a collection of essays, letters and reviews, it’s really the latter that are the main attraction. The earliest review, from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is dated December 1966; the latest, from The Washington Post “Book World”, is dated May 10, 1981. They are by no means all reviews of science fiction books — there’s a healthy smattering of more academic reviews, mostly of (as you would expect) more academic feminist texts — and even more than most collections of reviews, it’s a very partial sampling of the field of the time. But they are spectacular. Until now, everything I’ve read by Russ has invoked admiration without enthralling me; it’s probably just down to the fact that here she’s closer to my core interests, but I flat-out enjoyed this book more than any other of Russ’s that I’ve read.
As a critic, Russ is merciless, impressively concise (anyone who wants to know why and how reviewers should quote from the books they read can learn a lot here), and unapologetically funny. Of a particularly poor first novel (Retreat as it Was! by Donna J. Young) she says she wants “to convey as forcefully as possible the absolute, limp, thinness of the book”; then, ‘What is the book about? Hugging, I think. Thirty-nine (non-erotic) hugs and seventeen incidents of weeping occur in one hundred and six pages, which averages out to one hug per 2.7 pages, one weep every 9.4 pages, and one of either (if you’re not picky) every 1.9 pages”(183). Riffing on George Bernard Shaw’s description of plays as either artificial or real rabbits (commercial work is the artificial rabbit, true works of art the real deal), Russ says that “Ben Bova’s Millennium is an artificial rabbit. My copy tried to eat real grass in the back yard and died” (125). She seems to have a particular fondness for James Blish (she reviews more books by him than by any other writer, and cites his criticism more frequently than she cites any other critic, too) and Kate Wilhelm (I am left with a strong desire to seek out and read more Kate Wilhelm), but in general roams pretty widely, even if the unhelpfully sparse table of contents makes it hard to hold a picture of her range in your head.
Perhaps the most striking — and, I have to say, refreshing — aspect of the reviews is that, more than any critic working today, Russ is first, foremost and proudly a science fiction critic. Not for her the present received wisdom that science fiction and fantasy are really, when you get down to it, the same thing; if the Joanna Russ who wrote these reviews still exists, I imagine she would not be terribly impressed with Interfictions or Feeling Very Strange. (But how I would like to know for sure!) It’s not that she necessarily doesn’t like fantasy, but she is more prone to be impatient with it. In one of her columns for F&SF, for instance, she strongly criticises a slate of fantasy novels, drawing a storm of protest letters. Her response?
I know it’s painful to be told that something in which one has invested intense emotion is not only bad art but bad for you, not only bad for you but ridiculous. I didn’t do it to be mean, honest. Nor did I do it because the promise held out by heroic fantasy, the promise of escape into a wonderful Other world, is one I find temperamentally unappealing. On the contrary, it’s because I understand the intensity of the demand so well (having spent my twenties reading Eddison and Tolkien; I even adapted The Hobbit for the stage) that I also understand the absolute impossibility of ever fulfilling that demand. The current popularity of heroic fantasy scares me; I believe it to be a symptom of political and cultural reaction due to economic depression. […] That our literary heritage began with feudal epics and marchen is no reason to keep on writing them forever. […] Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it, but painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide. (169-70)
Other contenders? I haven’t read it yet, but if Mike Ashley’s Gateways to Forever is as the other volumes in his history of magazines, and reports seem to suggest that it is, then it would be a worthy nominee. And the SF Studies issue devoted to Afrofuturism that Adam Roberts mentions in his contribution to the Strange Horizons year-in-review sounds interesting. But I must have missed things. What else was out there?