British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Panel

As noted in the original post about the survey, one of the panel’s at last week’s BSFA/SFF AGM event was a discussion of some of the questions it raises. For those who weren’t able to attend (and indeed those who were), here’s a recording — you can download the mp3 direct from here, or listen to it on the BSFA site. The panelists were Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Paul McAuley, Juliet McKenna, and Kit Whitfield, with me moderating.

British Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Survey

Earlier this week, Liz posted the agenda for tomorrow’s BSFA/Science Fiction Foundation AGM event. Those of you who were paying attention may have had your curiosity piqued by this item:

10:05 BSFA Panel – Launch of the British Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey 2009: chaired by Niall Harrison, and featuring Nick Harkaway, Paul Kincaid, Juliet McKenna, Kit Whitfield, and Paul McAuley

This is entirely Mark Plummer’s fault. A little over a year ago, he posted me a copy of a fanzine he picked up at Orbital, produced for Mexicon III, a UK convention held so long ago (1989, to be precise) that information about it available online is limited to a few cryptic mentions in Ansible. Mark sent this ‘zine with a note:

Niall — I picked up the enclosed at Eastercon. I can’t remember if I’ve thrust a copy at you before [he hadn’t] but in case not I thought it might interest you. Also, I note — with no ulterior motive — that next year will be twenty years since Paul’s survey, a convenient round number for a suitable fan to contemplate updating…
Mark

I didn’t actually read the note all that closely when it arrived, and I put the fanzine on the Pile Of Stuff To Read without looking too closely at it, either. Skip forward a couple of months, and I pick it off the pile as my “something else to read in case I finish my book” for a Eurostar journey.

It turned out to be no normal convention ‘zine. It’s about a hundred pages long, for starters, and consists almost entirely of the results of a survey of working British sf and fantasy writers, orchestrated and analyzed by Paul. The questions were, as the introduction put it, deliberately broad — Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy? Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so, what is it? And so forth — with the answers to each considered in separate chapters of the ‘zine.

As Mark quite accurately predicted, the idea of repeating this survey, twenty years on, appealed to me. And now I am doing just that. The results will be turned into a standalone publication for BSFA members towards the end of this year. The plan is to include the original survey, as well, since obviously a large part of the aim is to see what, if anything, has changed.

So that’s what the panel tomorrow morning is about. We’re going to be talking about, essentially, writerly identity — how writers perceive their work; how others perceive it; how that changes, or doesn’t, over time and from place to place. Do come along! Only the AGMs are limited to BSFA and SFF members; the rest of the day’s panels and talks are open to all.

In the meantime, I’ve been sending out surveys to every active British writer of sf or fantasy that I can think of, and find contact details for. In keeping with the spirit of the original survey, I’m casting my net wide, to get as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible. So I’m including writers published within the genre, and writers published by mainstream houses (or as YA); writers from other countries resident in the UK, as well as UK-born writers resident in other countries. Because there has to be a threshold somewhere, my arbitrary definition of “active” is “has published at least one sf book, or more than three sf stories in semiprozine-or-higher-level publications, this decade”. If you meet these criteria, would like to participate, and I haven’t contacted you, please email me! I have a list of publishers to write to this weekend — I keep thinking of more — but as I say, I want as many responses as possible, from as broad a range of writers as possible.

SFF Masterclass, Day One

So, today was the first day of the long-anticipated Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in SF Criticism, 2008 edition, at which several denizens of these parts were present. (And a bunch of other people too.) The format was straightforward: a morning session led by Geoff Ryman, structured as a writer’s close reading of Stand on Zanzibar, and an afternoon session led by Wendy Pearson, in which we discussed postmodernism, queer theory, and “The Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation”. It would be fair to say I’m still digesting many of the issues the day raised, but it was all thoroughly stimulating. As a teaser, here are Geoff Ryman’s four tests for judging whether formal innovation in fiction is successful:

  1. It should not be confusing. The purpose of formal innovation is to provide greater insight into or access to either emotion or information; it should work without needing an instruction manual (or critics) to explain it.
  2. It should be fun. To take form seriously is to overvalue it; formal innovation is (or should be) driven by wit, freedom, and playfulness.
  3. It should be useful for something that couldn’t be achieved another way.
  4. It should do more than one thing at a time (as should most elements of prose fiction)