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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:

Written by Martin

30 April 2014 at 10:43

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘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.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

Non-Hugo Awards – Art

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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:

dreams_and_shadowsapocalypse now now

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.

Written by Martin

29 January 2014 at 21:17

Posted in art, awards, sf

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Second Best Is Pretty Good

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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.

Written by Martin

2 April 2013 at 18:37

Posted in awards, sf

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‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘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.

Written by Martin

28 March 2013 at 15:44

‘3 Moments Of An Explosion’ by China Miéville – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘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:

  1. A semi-satire on consumerism burden with crap portmanteaus and handled better in the margins of ‘Limited Edition’.
  2. A wannabe gonzo interstitial story that only reachs goofy and literalises the technology/drug metaphor of ‘Immersion’ to no greater effect than the metaphor.
  3. 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.

Written by Martin

27 March 2013 at 10:18

‘Limited Edition’ by Tim Maughan – 2012 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘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.

Written by Martin

25 March 2013 at 22:11


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