David Hebblethwaite says “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight”. He is right.
I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.
Nina Allan says there is “a serious problem with the way the larger publishing imprints view SF in the current market”. She is right.
With M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald and Simon Ings on their roster, Gollancz still surely boasts some of the finest writers in the business. But we’d do well to remember that authors with decades-long careers behind them will always constitute less of a financial risk for the publisher. When it comes to new blood – where the risk lies, in other words – aside from Hannu Rajaniemi I couldn’t think of one new-generation writer Gollancz publish who is actively innovative, who comes anywhere even close to doing what Delany was doing in 1971. That was a scary, scary thought. And if Gollancz, with their venerable back catalogue of masterworks and estimable track record in promoting fresh talent, isn’t actively seeking out newer writers who want to do more than write commercial core genre, who the hell is?
‘Pass This On’ by Dan Sartain – my tune of the month. Admittedly the month in question was April but hey, it’s out now. The video might not be a patch on the original but it has a disgracefully low number of views. So I thought I’d post it here.
My review of Burial At Sea is up now at Strange Horizons.
Astonishingly, it is my fiftieth review for them. To celebrate, I wanted to do something different so I’ve written my first ever review of a computer game. In a way, Burial At Sea is a bizarre choice: the sequel to a game I didn’t like and the prequel to a game I haven’t played. I’m glad I picked it though, both because I enjoyed writing about the game and because it partially redeemed the hours I put into completing Bioshock Infinite.
In other words, Episode 2 raises the gameplay bar considerably but only as high as a solid B. Grading the narrative proves harder because if Episode 1 is the epilogue to Bioshock Infinite then Episode 2 is the prologue to Bioshock. Given I was lost when the story was self-contained, I had no chance when the head of this mega-text looped round to swallow its own tail. So, if you have followed the series from the beginning, I imagine Episode 2 is as satisfying a coda as its creator has claimed. If, like me, you are a late arrival then it only offers a frustrating glimpse into an alternative dimension, one where Bioshock Infinite actually lived up to the praise lavished on it.
I also thought I’d take the opportunity to look back at the last nine years I’ve been writing for Strange Horizons. As I’ve said before, I was motivated to start reviewing by the poor quality of online reviews. I knew I was better at writing about books than other people being published. When I started writing for Strange Horizons, I soon realised that wasn’t enough. I needed to up my game, both for myself and for the magazine, and become a good reviewer in my own right. I’ve now achieved this so, in recent years, I’ve used Strange Horizons as a platform to keep stretching myself.
2005 – 2006: Change
At this point I had been reviewing for four years but I was still very much finding my feet as I moved away from my then preferred length of 500 words towards the greater depth and breadth of essay length-reviews. You can already see a substantial change between the first and the last of these but I’m not really sure I could recommend reading any of them.
1) Nova Scotia: New Speculative Scottish Fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J. Wilson (Strange Horizons: November 2005)
2) The Clock-King and the Queen of the Hourglass by Vera Nazarian (Strange Horizons: January 2006)
3) Life On Mars 1.1 – 1.3 (Strange Horizons: February 2006)
4) A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve (Strange Horizons: May 2006)
After an eight month gap, I knuckled down and turned out almost a review a month for 2007 and 2008 before slowing down and stabilising. Practice makes perfect and this is really where I learnt my trade (under the gentle whip-hand of then reviews editor Niall Harrison). Looking back, I’m pleased that there is a good mix of novels, films, short fiction, television and non-fiction here and this was definitely helpful in terms of developing as a writer. I am fond of a lot of these reviews and I’d describe some of them as very good but there are also others I’d revisit. Some particular milestones: my first multi-text review (The Nines, Southland Tales and Doomsday), (The Red Men) and what was for a long time the most commented upon review on the site (Night Of Villjamur).
5) The Fountain (2006) (Strange Horizons: February 2007)
6) Black Man by Richard Morgan (Strange Horizons: April 2007)
7) 28 Weeks Later (2007) (Strange Horizons: June 2007)
8) The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds (Strange Horizons: June 2007)
9) Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (Strange Horizons: August 2007)
10) Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery (Strange Horizons: October 2007)
11) The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua (Strange Horizons: January 2008)
12) The SFWA European Hall of Fame, edited by James Morrow and Kathryn Morrow (Strange Horizons: February 2008)
13) Black Sheep by Ben Peek (Strange Horizons: March 2008)
14) What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid (Strange Horizons: May 2008)
15) The Nines (2007), Southland Tales (2006) and Doomsday (2008) (Strange Horizons: June 2008)
16) Lost Boys by James Miller (Strange Horizons: July 2008)
17) Everything Is Sinister by David Llewellyn and The Heritage by Will Ashon (Strange Horizons: August 2008)
18) Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Strange Horizons: September 2008)
19) The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: November 2008)
20) Dead Set (Strange Horizons: December 2008)
21) The Chronicles Of The Black Company by Glen Cook (Strange Horizons: January 2009)
22) Subtle Edens, edited by Allen Ashley (Strange Horizons: February 2009)
23) Lost In Space by Toby Litt (Strange Horizons: March 2009)
24) A Thread of Truth by Nina Allan (Strange Horizons: May 2009)
25) Nights Of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton (Strange Horizons: June 2009)
26) God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell (Strange Horizons: July 2009)
27) Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui and Paprika (2006) (Strange Horizons: July 2009)
28) The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: August 2009)
29) The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa and All You Need Is KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (Strange Horizons: September 2009)
30) Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint (Strange Horizons: October 2009)
31) The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood and The Rapture by Liz Jensen (Strange Horizons: January 2010)
32) Kick-Ass (2010) (Strange Horizons: April 2010)
33) Monsters Of Men by Patrick Ness (Strange Horizons: June 2010)
34) Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010) (Strange Horizons: September 2010)
Another long gap (during which time I concentrated on reviewing older novels for this blog). When I returned to Strange Horizons, my focus was less on developing my criticism than on my style. A lot of SF novels are outright crap but an even bigger chunk are simply unambitious and make no attempt to engage with the possibilities of literature, particularly with respect to style. That goes double for reviews of SF so I wanted to practice what I preached. I’m pretty pleased with the results and I think you can particularly see this from 2012 onwards.
35) Source Code (2011) (Strange Horizons: April 2011)
36) Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge (Strange Horizons: June 2011)
37) In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood (Strange Horizons: October 2011)
38) Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Strange Horizons: February 2012)
39) Artemis by Philip Palmer (Strange Horizons: April 2012)
40) Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (Strange Horizons: May 2012)
41) Osiris by EJ Swift (Strange Horizons: October 2012)
42) The City’s Son by Tom Pollock (Strange Horizons: January 2013)
43) Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo (Strange Horizons: March 2013)
44) No Return by Zachary Jernigan (Strange Horizons: May 2013)
45) Sea Of Ghosts by Alan Campbell (Strange Horizons: August 2013)
46) Dark Waters Of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis (Strange Horizons: September 2013)
47) Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Strange Horizons: January 2014)
48) Wolves by Simon Ings (Strange Horizons: February 2014)
49) Astra by Naomi Foyle (Strange Horizons: March 2014)
So what next? Another nine years of writing for them, I hope. But I also want to write more away from Strange Horizons. Firstly, having spent years writing 2,000 word reviews, I find myself missing 500 word reviews. The space the internet allows to talk about texts is a huge boon but sometimes a bit of constraint can also be productive. I very much enjoyed writing 500 word reviews for Vector before I took over as reviews editor and it is a form I’m increasingly thinking of returning to. Secondly, I’ve long though a reading diet that consists solely of SF is stunting but that is exactly what has happened with my reviews. Whilst I read a wide range of literature, I only review SF so I’m going to make an effort to actually achieve the last of these resolutions.
A double apology. Firstly, I should have congratulated Nina Allan for winning the BSFA Award for Short Fiction with Spin when the awards were announced. Secondly, I should have reviewed the novella but – as with Ian Sales’s BSFA Award-winning novella last year – I failed to get round to it. I was reminded of this by Daniel Libris’s recent review so go and read that then go and buy Allan’s book.
Congratulations to all the other winners and commisserations to the others on the short fiction award shortlist:
Strange Horizons have published their annual SF Count which aims to draw attention to imbalances in literary coverage. You will be unsurprised to learn that coverage of and by men still disproportionately dominates. However, 2013 was a relatively positive year for the BSFA Review.
35.77% of our reviews were of books by women, considerably up on last year’s 26.8% (and the year before that. Whilst this clearly isn’t parity, it is actually above the baseline of 33.1% of SF books published in the UK. (Obviously that baseline isn’t completely reliable so please check the SF Count itself for their full methodology.) It is also by some margin the highest figure out of Foundation, Interzone and SFX, the other UK publications.
The same is true of the percentage of our reviewers who are women (a third, up from 23.5% the year before). Given Vector has far more reviewers than the other publications this also means that, in absolute term, we have many more female reviewers. But again, this is a long way off parity and doesn’t even meet the baseline of the approximately 40% of the British Science Fiction Association’s members who are women.
For the first time, this year the SF Count also includes data on black and minority ethnic writers and reviewers. You will see Vector comes dead last on the first of these measures having published only five reviews of books by BME writers (although given the number of reviews we publish – 133 last year – the proportion is always going to be relatively low). On reviewers, it would be nice to say we are doing rather better since Vector is sitting comfortably in the middle of the table. And yet Vector only had two BME reviewer. So actually we only look good in comparison to the seven magazines who had no such reviewers at all (including Interzone and SFX).
Unlike with women, there is no baseline of either books received or membership numbers to compare these figures against. The UK is a very white country – 87.1% – something that is easy to forget if you live in London and spend a lot of time online. My suspicion is UK SF fandom is even whiter. One of Vector’s BME reviewers was my roommate at World Fantasy Con in Brighton last October which was very handy for me as, whenever I wanted to find him, I just had to scan the dealer’s room for the only brown person. That isn’t quite true – American author and editor Bill Campbell was dilligently manning the Rosarium Publishing table and reviews of two of his books will be in the forthcoming issue of the BSFA Review – but there were definitely more women with pink hair present than there were people of colour.
This isn’t intended as an excuse. The UK, including publishing and fandom, is not entirely white and, indeed, is becoming less so. It is important that an organisation like the British Science Fiction Association reflects this fact. I’m grateful for the SF Count for holding me to account and I hope the membership will do the same. Please do contact either me or Donna Scott, chair of the BSFA, if you are interested in reviewing for us or have any thoughts about how the BSFA and its magazines can do more to promote equality and diversity within SF.
So the The 2014 Hugo shortlist is out (as is the 1939 Retro Hugo shortlist, if you are into that sort of thing). I put a lot of thought into the awards this year so I was pleased to see so many of my nominations made it through:
- Best Short Story: ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
- Best Related Work: Speculative Fiction 2012 by Justin Landon & Jared Shurin (Jurassic London)
- Best Graphic Story: Saga, Volume 2 written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics ) and “Time” by Randall Munroe (XKCD)
- Best Professional Artist: Galen Dara
- Best Fanzine: The Book Smugglers edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James, A Dribble of Ink edited by Aidan Moher and Pornokitsch edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin
- Best Fan Writer: Abigail Nussbaum
- Best Fan Artist: Mandie Manzano and Sarah Webb
- John W Campbell Award For Best New Writer: Sofia Samatar and Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Of the things I didn’t nominate, I was particularly pleased to see Liz Bourke for Best Fan Writer, Strange Horizons for Best Semiprozine and ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ by Mary Robinette Kowal for Best Novelette. However, the righting of the wrong done to Robinette Kowal was about all the fiction categories had going for them and my pleasure at the bottom half of the ballot soon turned to frustration as the top half was announced.
Partly that was because the 14 book Wheel Of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson was nominated for Best Novel after some bright spark noticed it was notionally eligible under section 3.2.6 of the WSFS Constitution: “Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible. However, a work appearing in a number of parts shall be eligible for the year of the final part.” Obviously fandom took the bait, despite the fact it clearly isn’t a novel and wasn’t even all written by the same person. On the plus side, it does mean that Adam Roberts’s lengthy evisceration of the series could be eligible for Best Related Work if he can bring himself to read the final three Sanderson volumes.
More than that, however, was the presence of a load of old shite from the Baen/Analog end of the spectrum, including a story from Vox Day. The quality of this fiction is a guess; I will read it and come to a judgement when the voter pack is sent out (although I’m not helpful). What isn’t a guess is the fact that they are on the shortlist because of concerted mutual lobbying. This is a pretty obvious outcome of fan culture endorsing award lobbying so you can’t then turn around and complain that the wrong people were more successful at lobbying.
As I mentioned, I moved recently. The reason I needed to leave my beloved flat was not just the constant accumulation of books but the birth of my son. That event also occasioned me changing my surname so I could share his. On one level, this is simple: you just send off a form and a cheque. On another, it is a thorny tangle of beaucracy and identity. Changing over to Martin Petto on my work IT and HR systems was simple, as was changing my multiple social media accounts. Other things took longer which is why 14 months later by wallet still contains cards with a mixture of names on them. Hardest of all, however, was working out what to do about my ‘professional’ name (don’t laugh). Having spent over a decade writing under my old name, I found it hard to make a clean break so you’ll probably have noticed that I’m still reviewing as Martin Lewis. The rough rule of thumb I had adopted (until very recently) was that I’d keep Lewis for ‘old things’ and use Petto for ‘new things’. To my surprise, one of those new things has turned out to be this:
So yeah, I am one of the contributers to Pandemonium: The Rite Of Spring, the latest chapbook from Jurassic London. This foray into fiction has obviously been met with some gentle teasing from fellow critics but it does open up some further questions of identity. For example, it is not uncommon for it to be suggested that critics are wannabe writers or that ‘those who can, do’. I’m not a wannabe writer, I am actual writer, just one who chooses to write non-fiction rather than fiction. So a part of me feels like a traitor to the fellowship of critics and mourns the loss of the armour of my purity. But a bigger part of me doesn’t give a shit. My story, ‘Letter From the President Of The British Board Of Film Censors’, was an experiment for myself (less formal than this one but an experiment nonetheless). It was fun to write and I hope it is fun to read. If not, here is some Phil Ochs: