Archive for the ‘awards’ Category
In Friday’s Guardian, Alex Clarke predicted Granta’s 20 novelists under 40. It contains five eligible British SF writers:
- Ned Beauman
- Rebecca Hunt
- Sarah Hall
- Helen Oyeyemi
- Owen Sheers
In today’s Guardian, Damien G Walter presents his 20 SF novelists under 40. It contains five eligible British SF writers:
- Joe Abercrombie
- Frances Hardinge
- Elizabeth May
- Tom Pollock
- James Smythe
In a post entitled ‘The Hugos, The Clarke Awards And What Do You Want, Exactly?’, Cora Buhlert writes:
“The Hugos are broken” posts came mainly from (male) British critics this year, and not against international fans and writers in general… Indeed, the one thing I don’t see on the list are British nominees, at least not in the fiction categories, which probably explains the dissatisfied grumblings of British fans and critics right there.
I’m not sure that first point is borne out by her own round-up post which links to not a single male British critic. Given this, her explanation for these grumblings is even less plausible than it would ordinarily be. She then goes on to discuss the Arthur C Clarke Award:
Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws. One thing that all of these discussions and their recurrence show is that the SFF community is changing. However, it’s not necessarily changing into the direction that the brigade of young male British critics would prefer.
I don’t know who this brigade is but – speaking as a young(ish) male British critic – I certainly prefer this year’s Clarke shortlist to that of the Best Novel Hugo (and I prefer the BSFA Award shortlist to both). I base this on my previous experience of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Chris Beckett, Nick Harkaway and Ken MacLeod (and M John Harrison and Adam Roberts). That is not to say that I’ve read the majority of the work on the shortlists but I do think it allows me to make a relatively informed comparison. However, what I find interesting about Buhlert’s post is not these specific points but the fact she links criticism of the Hugos with criticism of the Clarke, particularly with respect to diversity. I think this is unsuccessful because of a failure to discussion the ways in which the awards are fundamentally different, a difference that is, I think, how they are decided (five judges versus any interested member of Worldcon) than what they decide. By discussing that issue, I aim to answer Buhlert’s rhetorical question more fully.
The Clarke Award is for best science fiction novel published in the UK; the Best Novel Hugo is for best speculative fiction novel published in the US. The Clarke Award has a pool of eligible work pre-selected by UK publishers; the Best Novel Hugo has no pre-selection of its eligible pool. We know that this year, that means that the judges of the Clarke Award had 82 works to select their shortlist from (substantially higher than in previous years). But the Best Novel Hugo pool is vastly bigger than this – at a conservative guess I’d say at least four times the size. We also know from Niall Harrison’s count that ratio of speculative fiction books published by men and women is very different between the two countries. For example, using books received by Locus in 2011 as a proxy, he found:
Overall, 47% of titles listed were written or edited by women, 53% by men; that’s closer to parity than last year. It also obscures a large difference between the US and the UK. In the US, last year, Locus received very nearly equal numbers of books written/edited by men and women. In contrast, only 1 in 3 books received from the UK was written or edited by a woman.
Which brings us to the fact that this year, for only the second time in its 27 year history, there are no novels by women on the Clarke Award shortlist. I mentioned this briefly the other day when I talked about the existing data on women and the Clarke but it is perhaps worth unpacking a bit more. It is my belief that the lack of women on the shortlist can only be explained by individual sexism, institutional sexism or some combination of the two. A good example of the former theory can be found in this post by James Nicoll:
Congratulations to the Clarkes for resisting the deadly temptation to produce a more diverse nominee list, especially given the outrageous – by what appear to the current standards of British SF – presence of women, persons of colour and Muslims on the submissions list. In particular I’d like to praise you for snubbing Alif the Unseen, which could have only embolden those people into further creativity in the field of SF.
I think most people would agree that when it comes to likely reasons why the judges did not put Alif The Unseen on the shortlist, naked anti-Muslim hatred is pretty far down the list. When it comes to women, however, there is a much stronger case. This is based on the demographic argument that women make up more than half of the world’s population so we should expect them to be represented in those proportions. Given the distance between the 50% we should expect and the 0% we got – the argument goes – it is just not plausible that the four women and one man who judged the award this could not select a book by a woman on merit. As someone puts it in the comments on Nicoll’s post: “An all-male list shows that they’re already judging by something other than quality.” Now, this is a very handy rule of thumb but one that is predicated on supply of eligible work matching those demographics. For the Hugos, it does; for the Clarke, it doesn’t come anywhere close.
To take an example from another area where women remain disadvantaged, a lot of the actively bad practice has disappeared from recruitment and promotion over recent decades but it doesn’t matter if you have impartial criteria and a representative and independent interview panel if only men apply for the job. In this way, a fair selection process can still produce a disproportionate outcome. This counter-argument has been put forward by Liz Williams, one of this year’s judges, and I think it is a compelling reason to believe that the sexism here is institutional rather than individual.
In this respect, I was struck by something that Paul Kincaid said before the award: “If, for instance, Empty Space, Jack Glass, Angelmaker and Alif the Unseen are all excluded from the list, we will have very legitimate cause for concern.” Angelmaker did make the shortlist so hopefully he didn’t find cause for concern with the award this year (Kincaid has written his own dyspeptic piece on the Hugos and the Clarke). What struck me, however, was that you would be hard-pressed to change the ratio of authors and make this core proposition 75% women. If the judges don’t like a highly-rated novel by a man then there are plenty of other highly-rated options by men. If they don’t like a highly-rated novel by a woman then that can wipe out a lot of the available pool. Niall Harrison suggested in his excellent piece on the shortlist that the most plausible other contenders by women were The Method by Juli Zeh (which was shortlisted for a Kitschie) and Pure by Juliana Baggott. There is also vN by Madeline Ashby, a book that had much more mixed reviews but represents pretty much the only core science fiction contender by a woman). I am looking forward to reading these novels but I wish there were many, many more of them; as with the employment example above, I think the focus of fixing the problem needs to be on removing barriers for people who aren’t white men.
You’ll also notice that Empty Space, Jack Glass and Angelmaker are all most readily identified as science fiction whereas Alif The Unseen is most readily identified as fantasy. No one knows whether the judges liked it but didn’t think it was eligible or thought it was eligible but didn’t like it (or, indeed, didn’t like it or think it was eligible). These edge cases offer an additional opportunity for elimination and, if they are not eliminated, they always prove contentious. For example, this comment by Jonathan McCalmont in the context of a very interesting article about how to fix discussion of the Hugo Awards: “An interesting example of this type of thing in practice is the Clarke award which, despite being an SF award, has recently been nominating works of urban fantasy and novels containing talking horses.” Both Zoo City (a primarily fantasy novel by a woman that can be read as science fiction) and The Waters Rising (a primarily science fiction novel by a woman that can be read as fantasy) are dismissed. (McCalmont goes on to echo Cheryl Morgan’s suggestion that this year the judges have directly responded to this reaction: “But then you look at this year’s shortlist and you see nothing but core genre. Something happened. People talked about it. Something else happened.” I find this theory unlikely.)
So, what do I want from the Arthur C Clarke Award, exactly? I want knowledgeable judges to read the submitted work, think carefully about which of these novels truly constitute the best science fiction published that year and advocate passionately for these books to their fellow judges. I want them to be open-minded about what constitutes science fiction and I don’t want them to try and second guess the response their shortlist. I’m lucky because this is exactly how I believe the award already operates. But I also want the judges to be able to draw on a broad, bold and diverse pool of high-quality submissions and sadly that isn’t the case.
The Hugos, however, do not have such a problem so what do I want from them? I want the voters to act as if they were judges, to treat the process of voting as a privilege and a responsibility. I want them to read the material made available to them in the voter pack and cast an informed ballot based on this, meaning categories such as Best Fan Artist to receive as many votes as categories such as Best Novel. I want everyone who can vote to actually vote, meaning more people voted than nominated. But I also want everyone who votes to nominate next year and make use of what the Clarke doesn’t have: a pool of potential nominees constrained only by the imagination of the people who decided the shortlist. Being an informed nominator is a tough job – it is much harder than being an informed voter – but it is only way to make an informed vote truly meaningful. To make this process easier, we all need to help each other by posting our draft ballots, engaging with low nomination categories and just generally talking about what really is the best that speculative fiction has to offer.
Including this year, 48 out of 169 nominees (28.4%) and 10 out of 27 winners (37%) have been women. This compares pretty favourably to the level of submissions by women this year: 21%. We also know that the level has been around 20% since the submissions list was first published.
But the submissions list has only been published for less than a decade and there is a persistent feeling that number of science fiction novels being published by women in the UK has decreased since the Arthur C Clarke Award was established in 1986.
Unfortunately, we can’t compare submissions historically but we can compare with the shortlists. So, in the first 10 years of the award 30% of nominees were female, 50% of winners were female and there were three years when there were as many women as men on the shortlist. Whereas in the last 10 years 22% of nominees were female, 20% of winners were female and men made up the majority of the shortlist every years.
So the record of the Arthur C Clarke Award is getting worse. I think this has to reflect the worsening situation for women in British science fiction publishing over this period. The fact that this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of men is a symptom of this and we need to address the root cause.
The Hugo shortlists were announced on Saturday and, if not utter twaddle, they are still pretty bad. On a personal level, I think four things I nominated made the ballot (yay, Strange Horizons!). When it comes to the actual voting, I suspect I will probably be using No Award quite liberally. But judiciously. God knows there are stupid things about the Hugos but Aidan Moher is completely right that the primary problem is not the process but the voters. So I’m going to try to be the best voter I can.
The winners of the BSFA Awards were announced the day after the Hugos. They look good in their own right but even better in comparison. Which is not to say that any of my choices actually won.
Best Novel went to Adam Roberts for Jack Glass. Obviously, my first vote went to Empty Space by M John Harrison but I’m very pleased to see Roberts win an award. As, I imagine, is he. When the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is announced later this week, I expect Jack Glass to be on it (if not, blame me).
Best Short Fiction went to ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales. This year’s shortlist contained three interesting but flawed stories and three stories that were beneath consideration. Of the former, ‘Limited Edition’ was the most interesting and least flawed and got my first vote but this novella got my second slot. However, I’ll expect his next story in the series, ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’, to go further.
Best Artwork went to Black Sheep for Jack Glass. I discussed the shortlist at length when it was announced and I was obviously hoping for a Joey Hi-Fi win. Since that was not to be, I’m glad Jack Glass pulled off the double.
Best Non-Fiction went to the World SF Blog, adding to their Kitschie from last month. This is funny category and one I where I naturally gravitate towards a discrete work. So this was the only category where my second choice didn’t win. My first choice was Paul Kincaid’s ‘The Widening Gyre which crystallised some of my own thoughts and framed the most important debate of last year for me. Second place went to Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; I have my problems with the book but it is long overdue.
‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books, 2012)
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Stranded on the moon, a group of American astronauts watch with horror as the Cold War turns hot and the Earth begins to tear itself apart. Painfully aware that reserves of food and good will are running low, they begin experimenting with a new technology in the hope that it will somehow allow them to find a new home.
First in a series of four self-published novellas, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains offers an unusual but compelling combination of immaculately researched hard sf and literary fiction. Central to the book’s strangeness is that, despite drawing on two very different literary traditions to tell his story, Sales makes no attempt to integrate the prose styles associated with these traditions. This collision of styles results in a series of arresting passages where beautifully formed and intensely poetic images loom up unexpectedly from a fog of numbers and acronyms. Initially quite unsettling, this discordant style proves highly effective once Sales begins exploring similar tensions within his characters. By juxtaposing the inhuman and technical elements of hard sf with the humanistic and lyrical elements of literary fiction, Sales suggests that his characters may well be burying themselves in the technical aspects of their jobs in order to escape from feelings which, though perfectly human, have no place amidst the square-jawed heroism of the American space programme. This ambivalent attitude towards the character of Apollo-era astronauts also provides the basis for an unflinchingly brutal assault on the myth of the ‘right stuff’. In fact, it is hard not to think of science fictional archetypes like Robert Heinlein’s Capable Man when Sales takes all the machismo and patriotism of a Sixties astronaut and forces it to decay into a hideous radioactive sludge of pride, resentment and petulant sentimentality.
Though packed with invention and fleeting displays of true literary grace, Adrift On The Sea Of Rains is a somewhat unbalanced piece of writing. For example, while the experimental juxtaposition of different prose styles is successful on the whole, Sales does occasionally lose himself in technical detail, resulting in readers having to pick their way through needlessly dense thickets of acronym-studded exposition. This sense of imbalance is also evident in his tendency to lavish attention on world building while expecting readers to fill in the gaps when it comes to characterisation. Particularly annoying is the way that Sales ends the book with both a bibliography and a potted history of his fictional space programme when those pages might have been better put to better use unpacking the human elements of the story. Thankfully, though undoubtedly a source of frustration, these imbalances prove relatively unproblematic when weighed against the scope of Sales’s ambition and the adroitness of his execution. The Apollo Quartet promises much but in order to deliver on this promise Sales must learn to trust his instincts as a literary stylist as the muse of technological correctness is only holding him back.
This review originally appeared in Vector #271.
’3 Moments Of An Explosion’ was originally published on Rejectamentalist Manifesto.
China Miéville bestrides the genre stage like a colossal sentient oil rig. He’s been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel four times (winning for The City & The City) and ‘Covehithe’ was on the Best Short Fiction shortlist last year. That’s in addition to his Hugo, World Fantasy Award, three Clarke Awards and seven Locus Awards. You often get the impression that he could publish his shopping list and it would be up for a major award. Which is pretty much what has happened here – Rejectamentalist Manifesto is Miéville’s blog. The items on his shopping list are:
- A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
- A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
- A smoke beast urban horror as pointless as Lost and as under-nourished as ‘The Flight Of Ravens’
You can read it as a compressed novel but I’m more inclined read it in the same was as ‘The Song Of The Body Cartographer’: as a nothing. Still, it is better than ’4 Final Orpheuses’. But then again, ‘better’ is a useless concept when it comes to these blog posts. Putting this story on an award shortlist seems rather like compiling M John Harrison’s blog posts into a How To Be A Writer book.
‘Limited Edition’ was originally published in Arc 1.3: Afterparty Overdrive
The BSFA Award is open to all types of speculative fiction but, given its full title, it is pleasing to see some actual science fiction about Britain on the shortlist rather than, say, supernatural Victoriana.
“GRIIDS PUT YOUR SPEX OOOONN,” Melody screams again. Echoes.
“I GOT NO CREDIT,” replies Grids.
“Jesus fam, nuff shouting,” mumbles College.
‘Limited Edition’ is, of all the things to be nominated for an award in 2013, a cyberpunk story. Reading it, I was surprised how much missed what the subgenre spoke to and how timely and relevant is occasional outbreaks remain. I was also reminded of my review of another one of those outbreaks, Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:
Amongst many aphorisms, Gibson is famous for suggesting that the future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. This is a great soundbite but is really just another way of saying that wealth is not evenly distributed. If the social safety net seems tenuous in the late 21st Century Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of the Sprawl then it is virtually non-existent in the early 21st Century Johannesburg of Moxyland.
We all live within a system that exists solely to unevenly distribute wealth. Even when a technology itself is universal, the rich will always get more for less. In a genre so often obsessed with the exceptional, Beukes and Maughan know that most people will be losers and their story is just as important to tell. You might call this Pay As You Go SF.
The story opens with an advert, an advert for limited edition trainers, “serious nice kicks” endorsed by Eugene Sureshot and due to be released in ten days. Grids finds out that the trainers are already in storage at his local retail park in Bristol and organises a smash and grab. Since this is the future, he uses the Smash/Grab server to both anonymously co-ordinate and gameify the raid.
So ‘Limited Edition’ is situated in obvious response to the 2011 riots in England but perhaps more importantly in response to the response. There are a few broad stabs at political satire such as a reference to the 2014 Anti-terrorism, Illegal Protest, Sporting Events-Related Violence and Retail-Slash-Enterprise Zone Security And Management Act but generally (and more successfully than that clunker) Maughan takes a street-level approach. It is an attempt to sympathetically imagine what life will be like in the near future for kids like those who took part in the riots and much more science fiction should be trying something similar.
Some is. His peers, as I see it, are Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross since their fiction so often shows the dirty interaction between nerd-rapture tech meeting humanity. Which is not to say their writing itself is similar – a comparison between the kids of ‘Limited Edition’ and those of Little Brother leaves is just embarrassing for Doctorow. But comparing them to the twenty and thirty somethings of Rule 34 is less comforting for Maughan. It is unfair to compare the scope of a novel to that of a short story but Stross revels in the economic and class complexity of world whereas Maughan is pretty wobbly outside of the immediate social strata he is interested it. At one point Grids wonders about the followers piggybacking his feed and it stands as a wider comment on the story:
Who knows who they are? Bored office workers, slum kids, stockbrokers, fashionistas, online griefers, lazy journalists, housewives, angry Daily Mail readers.
Never mind the journalists, this is a pretty lazy list. It also points to a tension in the story: Maughan rightly deplores the casual contempt of the term chav but is happy to indulge in his own broad stereotyping. The story is punctuated by tweets providing commentary on the events that are unfolding and the negative ones come from people with names like WhiteVanStan, F1 Fan and ManU4eva. The dichotomy of meathead sports fans versus the cool kid gamers doesn’t sit easily with the aim of the story to look beyond labels to individuals. In fact, given the unwieldy title of that imaginary 2014 legislation, Maughan should be making common cause between the two groups. The other group associated with negative comments are women or girls with names like KattyKins13 and xxKayleighxx. This is even more uncomfortable, particularly when set against Melody:
She screw-faces, and he feels embarrassed again, because she looks cute when she does. Not bimbo, high-street, wannabe-gamer cute, but smart, confident. And cute. He kinda likes her, but he’s known her for time. Since they were little. Plus her mum would kill him.
That is Grids in full girl next door crush mode. Not only does this reduce Maughan to clichés, it also reinforces the sense of dividing people up into categories; I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the existence of fake geek girls but he is leading himself down that path. This partisan deployment of sympathies is most clearly seen in Grids himself. Why does he Smash/Grab? The story’s first answer is ego: “Nothing scares him like the insignificance.” The second and perhaps more disingenuous answer comes at the very end when we discover he is the surrogate rather to his two younger siblings:
It’s the last of the few quid he made by trading in some of his points on the Smash/Grab server. Meaning his ranking has taken a major kicking, but it’s all good if it means he can feed everyone for a few days.
So nicking a pair of trainers is literally equivalent to stealing a loaf of bread. This big rhetorical land grab and not one Maughan backs up, tying in with Niall Alexander’s point that there is “a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines.” It also gives the lie to an earlier protestation:
Grids ain’t no sociologist, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how a community is meant to work. And even if it is then he’s not part of it, because he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider.
Grids is pay as you go crew: not in the game but not out of it either. To return to Gibson, saying the street finds its own use for things is another way of saying the losers of capitalism will always subvert it for their own gain. In this sense, it is a shame that globalisation rose to prominence as a concept (and counter-concept) just as cyberpunk started to decline. It is to Maughan’s credit that he explicitly aligns the two since they are such obvious bedfellows but unfortunately the lack of depth with which he explores the issues is also a weakness of the story.
Just before they arrive at the sportswear shop, it is tagged with a QR code by a political activist who is dragged off sharpish by the police. The code links to a video clip of the sweatshop conditions in which the Eugene Sureshots are made. Grids views the clip and has an epiphany which leads to him torching rather than stealing the trainers:
“If you’ve seen what’s playing on my stream yeah, then you know why I’m going to do this. This is for them yeah, them girls. For all the kids. For all the kids that can’t come down here and do what we do. This is for them cos it’s their world now.”
Not massively convincing. A quote like that wouldn’t look out of place in a Doctorow novel and I imagine that is the last thing Maughan wants. Things like this take the edge off the passages that really give the story its power:
Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here – it’s nowhere, a non-place.
That power remains though, expressed through prose alternating between the limber and the abrasive. ‘Limited Edition’ has far more vitality, verve and curiosity than the previous three stories on the shortlist and I hope Maughan will continue to immerse himself deeper into the poetry and politics of his work.
‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ was originally published in Philippine Genre Stories
We first see Siren and Inyanna as lovers. Siren explores Inyanna’s body – different to ours – before the scene tastefully dissolves to orgasm. We next see them as doctor and patient. Siren is the body cartographer of the title and the genetic engineering that took place whilst Inyanna was in the womb was not entirely successful. Specifically she cannot bond to her pillor’ak, a flying Pern-beast. Both women are citizens of the Matriarchy which is currently in negotiations with the Patriarchy so this failure of flight takes on a political dimension.
So ‘The Song of the Body Cartographer’ is telling three stories – a romance, a drama and a political thriller – but Loenen-Ruiz does not have room to tell one.
When Siren and Inyanna first meet their relationship is medical, when we first meet them it is erotic, when we leave them it is true love. None of the steps in-between are depicted, leaving the relationship weightless. To fix the genetic mess that Siren uncovers, Inyanna has to be stripped back so far that her personality will be altered and their love lost. The story ends with Siren whispering “goodbye, my Only” but it is impossible for this to have any emotional force.
Instead, most of the story is devoted to sketching out bits of this ribofunk world (I was reminded of Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi’s much richer and successful ‘The Fluted Girl’). An origin story of their culture is repeated second hand through a series of canvases Siren’s, an interesting device but not one I found very illuminating. Nothing much is made of the importance of the pillor’ak despite the radical transformation required to ride them. Similarly, Siren and Inyanna are of different classes but similar status so it is pretty much irrelevant. I suspect Loenen-Ruiz has a deeper culture in her head than she has placed on the page.
This is most noticeable in the political dimension. Very little is said of their relationship with the Patriarchy and for the majority of the story I assumed it was just a background note that – like the romance – was there to give a flimsy story a bit more heft. At the end, however, it suddenly becomes clear that Inyanna has become the victim of espionage and that she is not the only one. The scope of the story is blown open and it becomes instead a first chapter. Niall Alexander agrees with this assessment and points out that it really is an extract from a novel in progress. Siren assures us she will get on the case off the page: “She would study the grids in the quiet, and hopefully she would find some clue that would point her towards whoever was behind these crimes.” Well, one day the reader will actually get that story.
Finally, I think I need to mention the title. Siren is the body cartographer so Loenen-Ruiz is explicitly evoking the song of the siren but to what possible intend? The only possible reading I can make of this is that Siren is the saboteur but that seems utterly unsupported by the text. Is it just there, as with the relationship itself, to add a bit of gold leaf in an attempt to make the story look more valuable than it is?
‘The Flight Of The Ravens’ was originally published by Immersion Press.
The house looked abandoned; there were no lights showing in the windows. “What do you mean? Let’s go?”
He shook his head. “There’s something familiar, something I recognise.”
“what are you talking about? It’s just an empty house. Let’s go.”
He stepped forward and pushed at the front door.
It swung open.
Dun dun DUN! I immediately felt slightly bad for my reaction to Butler’s hackneyed opening to his story since the monster that inevitably lurks inside this haunted house is evoked with some nicely weird touches. “He had hardly eaten these last weeks, trying to weaken himself” we are told and, when the adventurous children creep into his house, he angrily smashes a garlic clove into fragments, “inhaling their pungent aroma” in an attempt to regain control of his body. But no, my first instinct was correct; ‘The Flight Of Ravens’ is gothic tripe of a the most familiar type. Our monster portentously tells the children: “You should not have come here.” Dun dun DUN!
Of the two children, Bernard dies and Elizabeth lives. Ten years pass in which she devotes herself to learning magic, a surprisingly easy business, to protect herself. In this she is encouraged by Bernard’s father, Huginn. For no particular reason, Huginn really is Huginn, one of Odin’s ravens in human form. A connection is eventually revealed since the murderous monster is a man possessed by a fire jötnar. This is unnecessary for the plot and the coincidence of two supernatural creatures from Norse mythology bumping into each other in 19th Century Amsterdam is hugely off-putting.
This setting allows Butler to play dress up, historical drag standing in for the what elsewhere in the genre would be torrential worldbuilding. So, for example: “Elizabeth rode away on her bicycle, her most-prized possession. It had been manufactured locally by Simplex, which set it apart from the more common imports from England.” There is no reason for the story to contain this sentence. It is there to try and convey veracity trhough detail which would be a bogus enterprise, even if the lot of the details weren’t incorrect. To ensure the reader gets their money’s worth of time tourism, Butler throws in several pointless meetings with Freud. Apparently he thinks Elizabeth has psychological problem rather than really being the victim of a malevolent supernatural evil. Crazy!
Pages turn, time passes. As Niall Alexander says:
At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna — Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy… yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.
Eventually we get to the end and the plot is tied up neatly at little cost. The monster (half-heartedly humanised) perishes in one final cliche: “In a matter of seconds her aged the remainder of his five centuries, and crumbled to ashes.” This is the point in a Hammer horror film where ‘The End?’ would appear before the credits. Instead, Butler or Immersion has chosen ‘Fin’. Oh dear.
‘Immersion’ was originally published in Clarkesworld #69
‘Immersion’ is a neat, symmetrical story that sets out its moral clearly at the end:
It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.
Quy lives on Longevity Station, a minority culture economically reliant on tourism from the majority culture of the Galactics. She speaks Rong which suggests Himalayan ethnicity origins but the specifics are less important than the fundamental power relationship of minority-majority. Agnes is from the same culture as Quy but has left it behind, along with her original name, to become a Galactic. The technology of the immerser allows her to discard her past far more comprehensively than is possible for us though.
Immersers were invented by the Galactics to act as holographic translators, changing not just words but appearance and gesture. Agnes used hers to more rapidly assimilate into the culture of the Galactics. However, she became addicted to it, without it she would die but with it she is unable to function and exists in a state approaching catatonia. This is mirrored in Que’s half of the narrative where there is a suggestion that she escaped a similar fate but still suffers from depression as a result (which explains but doesn’t improve the flat prose).
So distrust of technology is firmly embedded in the story. Virtual reality as drug is a well-established metaphor and the clichés of one transfer easily to the other. Similarly, well-established is the idea that digital cannot compete with analogue in terms of veracity. So, for example, we have Quy watching spaceships form the docks of the station:
She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple.
Beyond this, there is a sense that the technology is impure. Quy “actually would have been glad to never put on an immerser again—she hated the feeling they gave her, the vague sensation of the system rooting around in her brain to find the best body cues to give her.” The body horror she feels is echoed in the way she describes her culture being invaded: “a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches”.
It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.
This glibness is matched by the closing moral that I quoted at the beginning which is a shame because it detracts from the more interesting depiction of the unequal relationships between the two cultures. The reason Agnes has returned to Longevity is because her husband is trying to dredge up he
Quy thought of the banquet; of the food on the tables, of Galen thinking it would remind Agnes of home. Of how, in the end, it was doomed to fail, because everything would be filtered through the immerser, leaving Agnes with nothing but an exotic feast of unfamiliar flavours.
It is an excellently pointed use of the word “exotic”. Despite what Quy says, Agnes does magically achieve this conceptual breakthrough. I might not like this fact but it is beautifully expressed:
Her avatar is but a thin layer, and you can see her beneath it: a round, moon-shaped face with skin the colour of cinammon—no, not spices, not chocolate, but simply a colour you’ve seen all your life.