‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ was originally published at Strange Horizons
One of the odd things about SF short fiction – and one of the reasons for this feature – is that so much of it is published but so little is written about it. And when short fiction is written about, it is usually in the listings format that goes for comprehensive coverage of as many stories as possible over analysis of individual stories. As an example, here is how ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ (a story which was voted the best of 2013 by readers of Strange Horizons and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award) was described by the two biggest short fiction reviewing venues when it was first published:
“Told in short back-and-forth sections, this one is a typical SH story about love and commitment, with the selkie tale standing in as a metaphor.”
Lois Tilton’s short fiction column for Locus Online.
“Sofia Somatar’s storytelling style owes a debt to Kelly Link’s magic realism, but lacks that author’s emotional wallop. A quick read that gets a little lost in its own naval gazing and one non sequitur too many, but your mileage may vary depending on your taste for quirk.”
Jared L Mills reviewing for Tangent Online
It is hard to write about short fiction. It is particularly hard to write about short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? (I’m including myself in this.)
So, a selkie is a mythical creature that looks like seal in the water but once on land, having shed its skin, appears to be a human. There is something inherently a bit naff about selkies, something Samatar gestures at with her title, and Tilton is right that here they function primarily as a metaphor (you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to read this as an entirely realist story).
The sentiment of the title is voiced by the narrator in the opening paragraph: “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.” It is a great opening, immediately capturing the protagonist’s voice whilst also flagging the irony and metafictionality of the story. She’s eighteen, trying to understand her mother’s sudden disappearance on top of already trying to understand herself.
This second half of the story is reflected in the lovely relationship she forms with fellow waitress Mona, something that might be a burgeoning romance or might be platonic intimacy: “I’ve never kissed Mona. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I keep deciding it’s not time. It’s not that I think she’d freak out or anything. It’s not even that I’m afraid she wouldn’t kiss me back. It’s worse: I’m afraid she’d kiss me back, but not mean it.” If, like Mills, you can read any of this stuff without getting walloped by emotion then perhaps you need re-calibrating.
Equally, it is hard to spot the supposed navel-gazing and non sequitars. This is an extremely cleverly and precisely composed story; each short paragraph overlapping and amplifying the themes of the others, fluidly and without attracting attention. I guess this is part of the trouble with reviewing such fiction: if you take it apart, will it still work? The beauty of the story certainly isn’t broken by examination but I’m not sure it can be spoken either.
My review of Wolves by Simon Ings is up now at Strange Horizons. It is a conflicted review for a conflicted novel but it is ultimately a positive review for an exciting novel:
Wolves, then, is best understood not as a triumphant return but as a fascinating work of transition. Ings is taking bold, vigorous steps forward but this is treacherous terrain and it is no surprise that he slips backwards from time to time. Sometimes though, he is just too cavalier. I’ve mentioned several authors as reference points throughout this review, each with a strong personality; the point is not to hold Ings to another’s standards but to set out the company he is confidently keeping. These are some of the most important figures in SF and Ings is moving into this territory, he just needs to fully commit. If he currently seems stranded half way to Harrison, I don’t think it will be for long.
I try to avoid anything about a book before I write my review but once I’d emerged from my shell, I discoverd three interesting pieces that touch on issues I raise. Firstly, a lovely tribute to Iain Banks from Ings. I see a lot of both Banks and M John Harrison in Wolves so was particularly struck by his opening anecdote:
I first met Iain Banks at Lumb Bank, a writing centre near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The area has since become the hairdressing and financial services capital of the western world, but back then you could still find the odd lock-in. Banksie (always and forever Banksie: the other one is a parvenu) was teaching a course in writing science fiction. Mike Harrison was his guest reader, a prickly bugger who’d just finished a story called Small Heirlooms, for my money one of the great short stories of his or anyone’s career. I didn’t get how Banks and Harrison were such mates — the one bristling with psychic armour, the other ebullient, friendly, and without any apparent side to him at all.
Secondly, Toby Litt’s rave review in the Guardian. Having played the game of supposed influence myself, I probably shouldn’t throw stones whilst standing in a greenhouse but I think the connection Litt sees to JG Ballard is a bit of a red herring. I loved his suggestion that Ings was an “SF Thomas Hardy” though:
And here is where the Ballard comparisons stop short – because what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain.
This chimes with a wider point I make in my review:
Unnamed and unnameable; in contrast to Ings’s two globe-trotting previous novels, Wolves is ageographic. It takes place on some other island, an unnamed place linked only to Earth itself by the odd reference to things like “the Turkish quarter” and by the ghost of the British landscape. The combination of the tongue-tip familiar and the estrangingly alien is all part of the highly effective destabilising strategy Ings is deploying.
Thirdly, there are Ings’s comments on the genesis of the novel: “The deepest truth is that for over a year Wolves sat in my drawer, unsellable, malign, predicting, chapter by chapter, the worst year of my life.” This is extraordinarily candid stuff. It is also a perfect example of what a reviewer doesn’t want to read whilst they are working! Reading it after my review was complete answers some questions but poses others. So there is much more to say about Wolves – on influence and landscape and biography – and I am hoping to be able to write more about it myself later in the month. But for now, one more link: Jonathan Gibbs on Jeffrey Alan Love’s wonderful cover.
‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)
You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.
So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.
‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.
This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?
The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.
That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.
I’ve grouped these two categories together because I don’t have any of my own recommendations for either one of them. They also come perilously close to flunking my three criteria for Hugo categories: they must be for real things, there must be a sufficiently large pool of such things and the voters of the Hugos must be informed enough about such things to make meaningful nominations.
Best Graphic Story
A tortured description of the type sadly typical of the Hugos but I think everyone understands it is talking about comics. I love comics but, as I’ve written about before, I don’t really read them. I certainly don’t read them enough to but together a meaningful set of nominations and unfortunately, unlike the Best Artist categories, that can’t be fixed with a quick Google. So I will nominate anything that anyone persuades me is worthy in the comments. But it does beg the question, are Hugo voters, in general, qualified to nominate in this category? The evidence of the last couple of years since the category was instigated in 2009 aren’t positive: Girl Genius won for the first three years until the Foglios recused themselves and the bafflingly shit Schlock Mercenary has been shortlist every single year. I think we are approaching a make-or-break point for this category where the Hugo voters need to collectively step up or acknowledge that there can be important parts of SF that we just aren’t the right people to assess.
I’ve never listened to a fancast (or, as they are known in the real world, a podcast) and I’ve no interest in starting. So I don’t want recommendations and I won’t be voting in the category once the shortlist is announced. Unlike the Best Editor categories, this is purely personal taste, but I do wonder if there is any real value in having a new fan category when the existing ones are relatively unpopular and the chief difference is the medium. Now, at last year’s Worldcon, Best Fancast was actually more popular than Best Fanzine but only by 841 votes to 820. This makes them them the third and first least voted categories (with Best Fan Writer sandwiched). Would combining the two produce the best of both worlds? New blood, more interest and a bigger pool?
You’ll probably have gathered that I think there are too many Hugo categories; given there are currently 16, I think that is inarguable. ‘Prizes for all’ is neither practical or sensible and a little bit of focus might encourage greater participation: last year only 1848 ballots were cast out of 6,060 total memberships.
Like Ian Sales, these are several Hugo categories that I have big problems with but I think these two categories should simply be merged. The idea of both the Best Pro Artist and Best Fan Artist categories is to reward an artist for a body of work over a year. I see no reason why the issue of payment should come into it.
Not only is it a difficult distinction to draw, it is not present in the other categories. The only other time the word ‘fan’ appears is in Best Fan Writer and there it is as much a description of the type of writing being awarded (writing about speculative fiction) as it is the person being awarded. You can probably count the number of people who make a living from writing about SF on one of John Clute’s fingers. Nor is it a distinction that makes any appearance in the awards for writing speculative fiction itself which are all based on word count. So, for example, Seanan McGuire’s self- published story ‘In Sea-Salt Tears’ appeared on last year’s Best Novelette shortlist. In the only other categories that are awarded to individuals rather than works, the two Best Editor awards, the distinction is again the form of the content rather than the economic status of the producer of the content (this also brings us into semi-prozine territory – more on that later). So below are my two individual sets of nominations but in an ideal world, they would single set of Best Artist nominations.
Best Pro Artist
Best Fan Artist
Another unique feature of these categories is the relative anonymity of SF art, despite its ubiquity. You might well picked up a book because of its cover but you probably won’t know who was responsible. So I’m very grateful to people like Aidan Moher who post about art throughout the
year and this post was only possible because of him, Justin Landon, Liz Batty and Lady Business. But I’m even more appreciative of the Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) Tumblr. This is everything that author eligibility posts aren’t: a neutral third-party space that crowd-sources information from artists and fans alike and presents this side-by-side allowing nominators to easily compare the quality of these suggestions.
But my knowledge of the field is still weak and you may have noticed that I’ve only selected four artist for each category. Please lobby me in the comments with your recommendation for the fifth spot. Feel free to tell me why my other nominations are wrong and should be replaced too!
I won’t be nominating in either Best Editor Long Form or Best Editor Short Form and I will be voting No award in both categories. I don’t want to re-hash this post too much but these awards can only ever really be for best publisher or best currator, neither of which I feel require a category within the Hugos. They also overlap with the other categories which isn’t very helpful.
Consider last year’s Best Editor Short Form shortlist. First up there are Stanley Schmidt of Analog and Sheila Williams of Asimov’s, both of which would have been eligible for Best Professional Magazine, except that category was abolished on the grounds of being pointless in 1972. Then you’ve John Joseph Adams of Lightspeed Magazine and Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine, both of which were eligible for Best Semiprozine (and indeed both were shortlisted – Adams with Stefan Rudnicki and Clarke with Jason Heller, Sean Wallace, and Kate Baker. Finally you have Jonathan Strahan, editor of three anthologies (The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year: Volume 6, Under My Hat: Tales From The Cauldron and Edge Of Infinity), all of which were eligible for grab-bag category Best Related Work. Plus, of course, all the individual stories they edited were eligible for hte various short fiction categories.
So the concept of best editor is partially unrewardable, partially rewarded by other categories and partially rewarded by proxies. What is left does not justify a single seperate category, let alone two.
Right, the shortlists for the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies are out and they are looking pretty good. As with last year, I’ll be reviewing the nominated short stories and I’d love you to join me. But first – and again, as last year – the art categories.
BSFA Award For Best Artwork
1) Poster for Metropolis by Kevin Tong
One of my nominees, courtesy of a tip-off from Liz Batty. As Tong says, it is inspired by Russian Constructivist design, a highly appealing style in its own right and a good thematic match for the film. But what I like best is Maria’s robot doppelganger emerging from the background and then surging past her.
2) Cover for Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-fi
Hi-Fi was my number vote for last year’s award but he lost out to Black Sheep’s cover for Jack Glass. I’m going to be controversial and say 2013 wasn’t – by his high standards – a great year for him (although I’ll still be nominating him for the Hugos). His vote was split three ways for this award and though this is my favourite of the three, it likes the impact of some of his other work. I like the composition but from the condensed landmarks to the splashes of red on a black and white background, it all feels a bit familiar.
3) ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Richard Wagner
Unlike last year, there are no outright stinkers on the shortlist (which is only three works long) but this is pretty duff. It illustrates a story entitled ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Aliette de Bodard and so cunningly depicts an angel at the heart of some rain. It has the cheap, flat look of much CGI art and the reflection in the window particularly draws attention to this. The only interesting thing about the work is that it places the viewer in the position of a worshiper. No bad enough to warrant No Award, this still can’t win.
The Inky Tentacle
Unlike the BSFA Awards, I don’t get a vote for this. If I did, it would go to the cover for Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema by Amazing15:
But wait, what’s this? It has been shortlisted as a single entry with their cover for Doctorow’s Homeland. Boo, I say. On principle, I’m opposed to this and it smacks of lazy judging but perhaps more importantly, it shackles a great image to an average one. Pirate Cinema is a crisp, clever visual pun of the type that made the cover for Mira Grant’s Feed so effective; Homeland is just pastiche. In contrast to these clean designs, next up are two riotous covers:
There are similarities to the pair but, for me, the cover for C Robert Cargill’s Dreams And Shadows by Sinem Erkas edges out that for Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now by (that man again) Joey Hi-Fi. Its unified colour scheme makes the weirdness of the detailed illustration that bit more macabre, a portal into the book itself. Hi-Fi, in contrast, splatters the book all over the cover but without including much in the way of his trademark touches. The strong shadow on the central characters face is halfway there but really, this could be a lot of other people. And what are those at the top? Tentacles? Blatant award bait! By this point, I think it is fair to say that the judges are fans of colour blocking:
I go back and forth on the cover for Monica Hesse’s Stray by Gianmarco Magnani. I like the fact it deliberately signals a different tradition of design and I love the cropping of the image. At the same time, the image itself isn’t anythign to write home about it is all slightly anemic. It summons up ennui rather than teenage angst. Finally, there us the cover for Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic by Will Staehle probably is a good guide to the contents but really all you can say about it is that it is green. I don’t think it has much of a place on a shortlist that already contains the Amazing15 covers.