BSFA Awards: Non-Fiction

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?

8 Responses to “BSFA Awards: Non-Fiction”

  1. Jonathan M Says:

    That Russ quote is fab. It’s also nice to know that I’m not the only person who is… impatient… when it comes to fantasy and whose impatience seems to flow from a philosophical objection to what the genre is all about.

  2. Rich Horton Says:

    I would certainly recommend Gateways to Forever.

  3. Niall Says:

    Jonathan: yeah, I thought you’d like that. ;-) Not being familiar with most of the books she reviewed in that particular column, I couldn’t tell you how similar or dissimilar they are to what’s currently on offer. But I can’t imagine it’s an argument that’s going to go away any time soon. (See also this review.)

  4. Andrew M Says:

    Perhaps I should mention the existence of An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett – which appeared in 2007 even if I’m not sure if any copies have escaped into the wild.

    Or the Pocket Essentials Philip K Dick (second edition).

    I’ll avoid trying to pull apart the semantics of the word “appeared” in the criteria and take the word “first” as implied.

    Must track down the Russ (and find out where I stuck my copy of Magic Mommas, no doubt still in the padded envelope it came back from FJM in. And probably innabox)

  5. James Says:

    Brave New Words…

    Really, I found this just so disappointing, I am not lexicographer and I am not an expert of how a dictionary should work, but I found it really very lacking.

    There are too few words to begin with. How many actual words in this dictionary? I am not expert enough to list off all the words I would have included.

    I look for the explanation, history, x-ref and a little useage.

    I found the reliance on just listing many phrases where the term was used a real overkill. I can get the picture after one or two quotes, I really found the dictionary becoming tedious as opposed to entertaining and it lacked a depth, that the quotes didn’t sate for me, at least.

    There are not enough words to really have fun jumping around, and there is no shortage of empty pages -at the end of each letter.

    Maybe I am looking for something else, its hard, I suppose, The Encyclopaedia of SF is such a gem, even now, so many years after publication, and I have enjoyed Penguin and Oxford dictionaries of subjects and literary dictionaries and have looked at other dictionaries to see why I enjoyed them.

    Obviously the editor had his own objective, and it is a difficult area, in my opinion to be original in, does one do a literary dictionary, does one just focus on SF terms, as he has done, or should it be like a mini encyclopaedia, for me, I wanted something different from the dictionary and I really felt let down as it didn’t deliver on enjoyment, for me at least.To choose terms is fair enough, but it feels like list upon list of quotes.

    The cover was so good too.
    And I like this type of thing.

    Not sure.

    Oh, but the reason I was typing was to say I got my Matrix and Vector. This morning.

  6. James Says:

    And to prove that one’s name has nothing to do with taste. I love Brave New Words. I dip in and out all the time.

  7. BSFA Awards: Shortlists « Torque Control Says:

    […] years ago, but not non-fiction published last year. So: I already mentioned some of the non-fiction I liked; if I get a chance this weekend, i’ll mention some of the individual articles, essays and […]

  8. SF as a Literary Genre « Torque Control Says:

    […] very sympathetic to, and indeed something I liked about Joanna Russ’ reviews as collected in The Country You Have Never Seen); and he also argued that too often science in science fiction is the work of individuals, not […]


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