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BSFA Review – Vector #275

with 5 comments

In last issue’s editorial, I wondered if 2014 would be a year for award-winning women. Since then, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – one of the books I singled out – won the Golden Tentacle for best debut at the Kitschies and has been shortlisted for both the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards. Meanwhile, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – a book that wasn’t on my radar, despite having been shortlisted for the Booker – won the Red Tentacle for best novel. I should have been paying attention but obviously others were since Ozeki takes joint first place in our poll of reviews, alongside Kate Atkinson for Life After Life.

They are a thematically fitting pair, although I think their merits are less matched. If I was being cynical, I’d say Ozeki’s novel appeals to SF readers because it consists of page after page of tedious exposition. It is the dullest sort of literary meta-fiction aligned to a self-help primer on Buddhism with a bit of pop science thrown in for good measure. Life After Life, on the other hand, is sublime. Atkinson tells a very different tale of time which encompasses the best of historical fiction, family saga and romance but amplifies these through a palimpsest fantasy narrative. A worthy winner of the Costa Award.

As you might expect, there is a lot of cross-over between our poll and the BSFA awards and the next spot goes to Christopher Priest who won the award in 2011 with his previous novel, The Islanders. In Vector #274, Paul Kincaid said of The Adjacent: “It is as complex and rewarding as any of his novels, and it repays re-reading, but above all it is a novel that is as enthralling, as mystifying and as satisfying as any other you are likely to encounter this year.”

Just outside the medal positions is Nina Allan with Spin, shortlisted for the BSFA Award for short fiction but eligible here as this beguiling novella was published in book format by TTA Press. And, of course, there is Leckie herself. (I do wonder if, despite the hype, her middling position here is an indicator of her chances for the award itself).

A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar and What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou were books that I’d hoped to get to before nominations closed for awards season. Alas it was not to be but their appearance here makes me even more determined to read them in 2014. In a crowded reading schedule, I will always make time for Lauren Beukes though. The Shining Girls is substantially less interesting than her previous work but nonetheless evidence of a formidably talented writer.

Finally, we have two male British science fiction writers at opposite ends of their careers. The Machine is James Smythe’s third novel since his debut in 2012 (it was also shortlisted for the Red Tentacle); Evening’s Empires marks Paul McAuley’s fourth appearance on the shortlist of the BSFA Award since 1991. (The two BSFA shortlist novels missing here are Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell and God’s War by Kameron Hurley but the later came third in the poll back when it was originally came out in 2010. Such are the vagaries of Transatlantic publishing.)

So that was 2013. My own start to 2014 has involved moving house so if you are a publisher, please check the new address for review copies at the front of the magazine. The wealth of paperwork that has accompanied this move also means that I have finally updated various accounts and pieces of identification with my married name. Which means it is time for me to do the same for Vector too.

BSFA Review Poll

=1) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
=1) A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
3) The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
4) Spin by Nina Allan
5) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
6) A Stranger In Olondria by Sofia Samatar
7) What Lot’s Wife Saw by Ioanna Bourazopoulou
8) The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
9) The Machine by James Smythe
10) Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Reviews

  • Silent Land (Gollancz, 2010), Some Kind Of Fairy Tale (Gollancz, 2012) and The Year Of The Ladybird (Gollancz, 2013) by Graham Joyce – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Phoenicia’s Worlds by Ben Jeapes (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • Crash by Guy Haley (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • Close Encounters of the Invasive Kind by Sarah Seymore (LIT Verlag, 2012) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey by Neal Tringham (Pseudonymz, 2013) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Let’s All Go To The Science Fiction Disco, edited by Jonathan Wright (Adventure Rocketship!, 2013) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Eidolon by Libby McGugan (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson (2000 AD Graphic Novels, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones
  • Terra by Mitch Benn (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Alison Page
  • The Testimony by James Smythe (Blue Door, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • The Lowest Heaven, edited by Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • A History Of The Future In 100 Objects by Adrian Hon (Skyhook, 2013) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • The Dedalus Book Of Modern Greek Fantasy, edited and translated by David Connolly (Dedalus, 2004) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits (Abaddon Books, 2013) and The Blue Blazes (Angry Robot, 2013) by Chuck Wendig – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • Dream London by Tony Ballantyne (Solaris Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Head of Zeus, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath

Written by Martin

31 March 2014 at 10:36

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BSFA Review – Vector #274

with 3 comments

When the shortlist of the Arthur C Clarke Award was announced earlier this year, most of the discussion was about what wasn’t on the list: namely, women. This is the first time we’ve had an all male shortlist since 1988 and the situation has arisen from a situation where only 17 of 82 submitted novels were by women. Of these, only four books were seen as potential contenders in the inevitable pre-award crystal ball-gazing.

The first was the dire Pure by Julianna Baggott. The sooner the axle snaps on the Young Adult dystopia bandwagon, the better. The second was Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson, which Nic Clarke reviews on page 40 and suggests it is “in reality about as science fictional in aims and spirit as Harry Potter.” That isn’t the only reason why the judges might not have considered it: “a marvellous idea let down by [Wilson's] determination to use her characters as vehicles for her argument and her apparent unwillingness to just let her protagonist be the immature idiot his actions would tend to suggest, rather than the saviour she would like him to be.”

The third was The Method by Juli Zeh but, unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the novel as the paperback edition isn’t released until May 2014, two years after it was originally published. Come on, Vintage, sort it out. I can tell you it was shortlisted for a British genre award though: the Red Tentacle at the Kitschies. In fact, six out of the ten shortlisted titles for the Kitschies were by women, although they have the benefit of being able to include excellent fantasy novels (such as A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge) and excellent mainstream novels (such as The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan).

The fourth contender, vN by Madeline Ashby, was also shortlisted for the Kitschies and guess what? It is great. Not everyone was of this view, however; Andy Sawyer reviewed the novel in issue #271 and said: “The novel only takes us so far and like many SF futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus… some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.” But I am an unabashed fan and could easily see it on the Clarke shortlist. In fact, it would make quite a nice companion piece to eventual winner Dark Eden by Chris Beckett; both novels provide interesting, accessible spins on long-standing science fiction tropes through coming of age stories that blessedly aren’t aimed at Young Adults (although they may be aimed at young adults).

The sequel, iD, is out now and whilst it seems unlikely to appear on this year’s Clarke shortlist, it is certainly strong enough. But she will have a lot more competition because, looking forward, one thing seems certain: the field of science fiction written by women and published in Britain is both broader and deeper than it was last year.

Some of these books are corrections of an unaccountable publishing asymmetry where both British and American authors (such as EJ Swift’s Osiris and Kameron Hurley’s Kitschie-shortlisted God’s War) cannot find a home in this country. Some are the product of the cycle of publishing and the return of big beasts, young and old (such as Mira Grant’s Parasite and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam). Some of them are from genre-hoppers and dilettantes (such as Karen Lord’s The Best Of All Possible Worlds and Susan Greenfield’s 2121) and many of them are part of the continued Young Adult boom, again young and old (such as Cassandra Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter and Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict – and yes, Baggott is back again too). And some of them represent the emergence of a new generation of female SF writers (such as Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice).

It is that last novel that has captured the imagination of a huge chunk of the SF commentariat. I can’t remember such enormous hype for a debut novel since Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan and, unlike in that case, most of it seems to be word of mouth. When it came through my letterbox, word hadn’t reached me yet and it didn’t seem particularly special: just another space opera novel. Sad to say, the only thing that made it stand out was the fact it had a woman’s name on the cover. In some ways, my first impressions were right – it is the sort of accessible core SF you would expect from a book with a John Scalzi quote on the front – but it’s not just a “well-crafted crowd pleaser”, as Gwyneth Jones explains in her barnstorming review of the novel over the page. Ancillary Justice seems sure to appear on award shortlists in 2014.

Reviews

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Gwyneth Jones
  • Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (Gollancz, 2012) and Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson (Corvus, 2012) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Green Man and The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (New York Review of Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Benchmarks Continued, edited by David Langford and Greg Pickersgill (Ansible Editions, 2012) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America by John Cheng (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Science Fiction by Mark Bould (Routledge, 2012) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Vurt and Pollen (Tor UK, 2013) by Jeff Noon – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Mindjammer by Sarah Newton (Mindjammer Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
  • Down To The Bone by Justina Robson (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
  • Starship Seasons by Eric Brown (Drugstore Indian Press, 2013) – Review by Ian Sales
  • The Devil’s Nebula (Abaddon, 2012) and Helix Wars (Rebellion, 2012) by Eric Brown – Reviewed by Tony Jones
  • The Mammoth Book Of Time Travel SF, edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson, 2013) and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
  • Harvest Of Time by Alastair Reynolds (BBC Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • 11.22.63 by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • The Fictional Man by Al Ewing (Solaris, 2013) – Review by Gary Dalkin
  • Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot, 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Across The Event Horizons by Mercurio D Rivera (Newcon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
  • After the End: Recent Apocalypses, edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • Nebula Awards Showcase 2013, edited by Catherine Asaro (Pyr, 2013) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • Magic: an Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris, 2012) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Tales Of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
  • Savage City by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Sharps by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • Fade To Black by Francis Knight (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • The Heretic Land by Tim Lebbon (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Constable & Robinson, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • The Devil’s Apprentice by Jan Siegel (Ravenstone, 2013) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Rebellion by Lou Morgan (Solaris Books, 2013) – Reviewed by Kate Onyett
  • Angelfall by Susan Ee (Hodder, 2013) – Reviewed by Tony Jones

Written by Martin

23 December 2013 at 12:39

Posted in sf

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BSFA Review – Vector #273

with 3 comments

Like many people of my generation, any return to the parental home is accompanied not only by love and over-feeding but by entreaties to go into the loft and get rid of some of the crap up there. I am typing this having just returned from one such excursion where I was charmed to find a box my mother had labelled “Martin’s graphic booklets”. Thankfully, rather than self-published pornography, this contained a grab-bag of comics; random issues of Spiderman, Superman, Mask, Zoids and The Eagle that were testament to my erratic history as a child reader of the form.

The only comic I read consistently was “AD 2000″ (as another labelled box puts it) and I gave that up in the mid-Nineties. So reading the latest Judge Dredd collection, Day Of Chaos: The Fourth Faction, was an exercise both in nostalgia and time-slip. There he is on the cover: helmet and eagle, scowl and lawgiver. It is like turning on Eastenders to find that the Mitchell brothers still rule the roost. Unlike his rival for title of most significant figure in British science fiction, Mega City One’s judge, jury and executioner has never needed to regenerate. However, whilst I can think of few things worse than Dredd’s granite jaw being replaced by a floppy fringe, he could stand to move with the times a bit.

The Fourth Faction is written by his co-creator John Wagner and is a sort of sequel to The Apocalypse War, a cold war era story by Wagner and Alan Grant in which the dirty Sovs invade Mega City One only for Dredd to turn the tables on them by committing thermonuclear genocide against the motherland. Thirty years later, what is more striking than its lack of moral scruples is its obsolesce; the idea of Russian invasion seems quaint and even nuclear war is a dead nightmare.

The gist of the new story is that the fourth faction are Sov fifth columnists who have infiltrated the city bent on revenge. However, this is obscured by a load of old flannel about serial killers, some unintelligible internal politics and a tone that is every bit as redundant as the story line. This means heavy-handed satire on those opposed to gun control voiced by a character called Jerker McKnee; the use of obesity as joke with projectile vomiting as the punchline; corny puns and references like a tower block named after Ed Gein or a film poster featuring ‘Urb Karlan’.

This is a reference to the star of the 2012 film Dredd which both eradicated memories of the 1995 turkey starring Sylvester Stallone and showed that the iconic character was still relevant. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of this collection, something made starkly clear by its treatment of women. Early on, when a female judge goes on her own to investigate a suspicion, she is striped naked and tied up. The film cleverly subverted the possibility of sexual assault; here it is framed as titillation and it is sadly no surprise that later the main female character answers the phone in just her pants for no reason. With both this collection and Savage: The Guv’nor, reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont, highly respected 2000AD writers look backwards on several levels; the results are ugly and they won’t entice this reader back.

Reviews

  • Savage: The Guv’nor by Pat Mills and Patrick Godard (Titan Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Stone Spring, Bronze Summer and Iron Winter by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz, 2010, 2011 and 2012) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • Adam Robots by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2013) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
  • The Soddit by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2003) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (Corsair, 2013) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • Communion Town by Sam Thompson (HarperCollins, 2012) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett (NewCon Press, 2013) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Solaris Rising 2, edited by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2013) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Existence by David Brin (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2012) – Review by Gary Dalkin
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • The Curve Of The Earth by Simon Morden (Orbit, 2013) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • The Water Sign by CS Samulski (Booktrope, 2013) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
  • Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies by Juliet E McKenna (Solaris, 2011, 2012) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
  • The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by AP Canavan
  • The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
  • Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch (Orion, 2012) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Headline, 2011) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • Railsea by China Miéville (Pan Macmillan, 2013) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • Dark Peak by JG Parker (Stonewood Press, 2012) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • Sea Change by SM Wheeler (Tor, 2013) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon (Strange Chemistry, May 2013) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Angry Robot, 2013) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor UK, 2012) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele (Pyr, 2012) – Reviewed by Ian Sales

Written by Martin

7 October 2013 at 09:46

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BSFA Review – Vector #272

with 3 comments

The winner of this year’s BSFA Review poll of reviewers was also my favourite science fiction of 2012: Empty Space by M John Harrison, the concluding volume of the Kelfuchi Tract trilogy. This truly remarkable novel is reviewed by Dan Hartland over the page: “The boldness of Empty Space, then, is in positing a physical source of the metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic currency of the literary novel. Like the Tract itself, the trilogy which bears its name permits two-way traffic: from the literary to the science fictional, Harrison carries artful prose and intense human sympathy; in the other direction, he drags substance and even rigour.” All three novels have been nominated for the BSFA Award and, if there is any justice, this will be Harrison’s year.

Then again, I wouldn’t bet against Jack Glass either. Adam Roberts is a bit of a marmite author: he is critically acclaimed and widely admired but his books have a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. I’m inclined to think that is a good thing but Jack Glass has undoubtedly proved less divisive than most of his work – in a forthcoming review, Dave Roberts describes it as his “most entertaining to date”. It has already appeared on the shortlist for the Kitschies (losing to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist after a much-remarked upon absence for the last couple of years.

Our third place novel is also a BSFA Award nominee: 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson. As you’d expect from a KSR novel, it is hugely ambitious but even Ian Sales, who chose it earlier in the magazine as his book of the year, notes: “The future Robinson describes is a work of art, though it’s a pity he couldn’t give us a plot to match.” It is for this reason that Gary Dalkin’s forthcoming review describes the novel as a “thudding bore” but Robinson remains well loved.

What both the BSFA Award shortlist and our top five lacked this year were any novels by women. This is at least partially a reflection of the membership’s preference for science fiction over fantasy and the lack of much of a pool to draw from given the parlous state of British SF publishing when it comes to women. Hopefully the arrival of Del Rey Books in the UK this year, bringing with them Kameron Hurley and EJ Swift, will improve this situation. Still, it is worth noting that only two women have won the award in its 43 year history.

Despite the impediment of being a female fantasy writer – and a children’s fantasy writer to boot – Frances Hardinge makes our sixth place. Hardinge is simply one of Britain’s best fantasy authors, I am very pleased to see her appear on this list and I can’t wait to read A Face Like Glass. In contrast, Railsea, a children’s fantasy by perennial awards-magnet China Mieville, seems to have found little favour anywhere (although his story ‘Three Moments Of An Explosion’ did make the BSFA Award shortlist).

Just behind her in seventh is Boneland by Alan Garner, “a summation of Garner’s understanding of the impulses that shape and drive us as human beings, reaching far back into the mythic past”, as Maureen Kincaid Speller put it earlier. This book completes the immensely influential children’s fantasy trilogy he began over fifty years ago with The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, testament to the rich history of British children’s literature. It remains remarkably fecund today: a new children’s genre imprint, Strange Chemistry, appeared in 2012 and Mark Connorton and Cherith Baldry review its four launch titles on page 42.

Garner shares the seventh spot with Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. It goes without saying that it also makes the BSFA Award shortlist – this is his ninth appearance. No one else writes anything like MacLeod and the membership have embraced him for that. The final novel on the shortlist, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett, didn’t place – I voted for it, Chris.

Perhaps appropriately the final slot on our list is shared by two entirely different novels; one from the very heart of British science fiction (Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds) and one from the slippery fringes (Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway). This is a reminder of the depth and richness of speculative fiction, as is the fact that in all 51 titles received votes. That’s a year’s worth of reading for me, although much less for some of you!

BSFA Review Poll

1) Empty Space by M John Harrison
2) Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
3) 2313 by Kim Stanley Robinson
4) Communion Town by Sam Thompson
5) Extreme Metaphors, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara
6) A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
=7) Boneland by Alan Garner
=7) Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
9) Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord
=10) Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway
=10) Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds

Reviews

  • The Angel Of Revolution by George Griffith and The Purple Cloud by MP Shiel – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
  • Empty Space by M John Harrison (Gollancz, 2012) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • Osiris by EJ Swift (Night Shade Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Karen Burnham
  • Shift by Kim Curran and Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard (Strange Chemistry, 2012) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Strange Chemistry 2012) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • Dust by Joan Frances Turner (Penguin, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Timeless by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Staunton, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • The Devil’s Diadem by Sara Douglass (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
  • The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann 2012) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • Kultus by Richard Ford (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • The Ritual by Adam Nevill (Pan MacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Stephen Deas
  • The Mall by SL Grey (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • The Greyfriar and The Rift Walker by Clay and Susan Griffith (Pyr, 2010, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
  • To Indigo by Tanith Lee (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • Redemption In Indigo by Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Minority Council by Kate Griffin, (Orbit, 2012) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books, 2012) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • This Is The Quickest Way Down by Charles Christian (Proxima, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • Take No Prisoners by John Grant (Infinity Plus, 2011) – Reviewed by Tony Keen
  • Mythanimus by Storm Constantine (Immanion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • Words Of Re-enchantment by Anthony Nanson (Awen, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham

Written by Martin

29 April 2013 at 17:50

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BSFA Review – Vector #271

with 2 comments

This issue of the BSFA Review is something of a science fiction special and covers the whole spectrum of SF. I am also pleased to welcome several new contributors to these pages: Alison Page and Finn Dempster covering recent novels and Roger Luckhurst and Aishwarya Subramanian discussing a pair of academic volumes. Oh, and just for good measure we have Tricia Sullivan writing on Greg Egan too.

In keeping with the overall theme of Vector, the BSFA Review opens with LJ Hurst’s review of London Peculiar And Other Nonfiction by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch: “If Moorcock’s London were an organism, I suggest it would be either a chameleon or an amoeba. An amoeba because the city grows and absorbs what it grows around, a chameleon because it takes on appearances, possibly intentionally, becoming something else.” This quote gave me the impetus to pull the only one of China Mieville’s books which I hadn’t read yet, Looking For Jake And Other Stories, off the shelf.

London has been a looming presence in all Mieville’s work since his debut novel, King Rat, a shoddy attempt to fuse folk mythology with the its street culture. It was also re-imagined for the Bas-Lag novels that made his name as the violently febrile New Crobuzon and is there in his standalone works, above or below ground, for adults and for children. It also recurs again and again in this collection and, to someone who has made his home here, there is something transfixing about his ruined, post-collapse capital:

Primrose Hill was continually tunnelled through by some great maggoty imago; Kentish Town was a wasteland of heat and burnt-out houses that smouldered endlessly, in some arcane transmirror pyrosis. But Camden, where they had to go, was the running ground of apocalypse scum, the worst spivs from the dead market’s stall-holders, the least politicised of its punks.

It is an acquired taste though, saltier than his novels; his stories are more out of kilter, weirder than his novels and the hand of M John Harrison hangs heavy. They are also more personal and funnier: “I know I never came to you. You lived in fucking Barnet. I’m only human.”

Mieville lost out on the BSFA Short Fiction Award to Paul Cornell this year and those two stories as well as the other shortlisted works were collected in a booklet that was sent to members with the last mailing. This is becoming an annual tradition and one we are keen to continue. In our final review, former Vector editor Kevin Smith reviews the booklet and finds nothing to entice him back into the world of science fiction. As he puts it: “Have the authors lost the wow factor or have I?” Since nominations and votes come from the membership, I would hope people found something in the shortlist to excite them, but I’d be interested in comments from those of you who didn’t take part in the selection process itself and for whom the booklet was your first exposure to the stories. And I’d certainly encourage you all to start thinking about your nominations for next year now; the more people take part, the stronger the award is.

Reviews

  • London Peculiar And Other Nonfiction by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
  • Reflections On The Magic Of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones, edited by Charlie Butler, and Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones – Reviewed by Jessica Yates
  • The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Reviewed by Tricia Sullivan
  • Machine by Jennifer Pelland – Reviewed by Ian Sales
  • vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Rocket Science, edited by Ian Sales – Reviewed by Alastair Reynolds
  • Adrift On The Sea Of Rains by Ian Sales – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Broken Universe by Paul Melko – Reviewed by Finn Dempster
  • In The Lion’s Mouth by Michael Flynn – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • Random Walk by Alexandra Claire – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
  • 172 Hours On The Moon by Johan Harstad, translated by Tara F Chace – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Manhattan In Reverse by Peter F Hamilton – Reviewed by Martin Potts
  • Final Days by Gary Gibson – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • Champion Of Mars by Guy Haley – Reviewed by David Towsey
  • Age of Aztec by James Lovegrove – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Girl Genius Omnibus: Volume One – Agatha Awakens by Phil and Kaja Foglio – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • Doctor Who and the Daleks by David Whitaker, Doctor Who and the Crusaders by David Whitaker, Doctor Who and the Cybermen by Gerry Davis, Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen by Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion by Terrance Dicks and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters by Malcolm Hulke – Reviewed by Tony Keen
  • Shada by Gareth Roberts, adapted from a script by Douglas Adams – Reviewed by Alison Page
  • Maps Of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity, And The End Of Culture by Simon J. James – Reviewed by Roger Luckhurst
  • Postcolonialism and Science Fiction by Jessica Langer – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Kevin Smith on the shortlist for the BSFA Short Fiction Award

Written by Martin

1 February 2013 at 10:40

Posted in sf

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BSFA Review – Vector #270

with one comment

I don’t think anyone was surprised by Ian McDonald’s victory in the first Vector reviewers’ poll last year. The Dervish House received pretty much universal acclaim, won comprehensively and then went on to take the BSFA Award for best novel. Some years there is a book that just seems to capture the critical and popular consensus. In 2011, however, there were two: Embassytown by China Miéville and The Islanders by Christopher Priest.

These two very different novels by much admired authors were both shortlisted for this year’s BSFA Award and, as soon as I opened the poll, votes started coming in thick and fast from the reviewers. Miéville came sixth last year with Kraken, a novel I liked a lot but which was generally seen as the author blowing off steam. Embassytown was meatier fare, his first ‘proper’ science fiction novel, a return to the ambition of 2009′s The City and The City (which won the BSFA Award and the Arthur C Clarke Award). As Paul Graham Raven put it in Vector #268: “Embassytown is good, but it is not easy; it partakes of the tools of genre, but it does so in ways that are unusual or even antithetical to the conventions of genre.”

Priest, on the other hand, hadn’t published a novel since 2002’s The Separation (which also won both the BSFA Award and the Clarke). So this was an Event and, by all accounts, lived up to the decade long wait. The two novels kept swapping pole position between them and the fact they ultimately drew has some of the same cosmic justice as Paolo Bacigalupi and Miéville sharing the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel. My money is on Priest to just edge it for the BSFA Award but Miéville may take the short story award with ‘Covehithe’.

From familiar faces to new blood. I wrote about God’s War in my editorial in Vector #269 where I pointed out that it was a shame Kameron Hurley’s debut novel was ineligible for UK awards (although the related story ‘Afterlife’ did make the BSFA Award ballot). A roiling stew of influences and ideas, it was vital and exciting and I’m sure I won’t be the only person to be delighted it took bronze. Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi also sits outside of the UK genre scene and benefited from strong word of mouth but is otherwise the complete opposite to Hurley’s brash melange. It is a subtle, slippery novel – “an arch, stylish feminist skewering of the narrative conventions of several genres”, as Nic Clarke puts it, later in the magazine – but readers have clearly welcomed this ambiguity. Nina Allan, another writer of oblique literary fantasy, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for short fiction last year for ‘Flying in the Face of God’, having previously been shortlisted in 2006 for ‘Bird Songs at Eventide’. The Silver Wind is her second collection and demonstrates that her reputation continues to quietly grow and grow. The title story was shortlisted this year, could she win this time?

Despite being the runner up of last year’s poll for New Model Army, Adam Roberts missed out on a place on the BSFA Award shortlist having previously made it in 2009 for Yellow Blue Tibia. In 2011, he turned this on its head by securing a place for By Light Alone on the shortlist whilst dropping to sixth in the poll. With Embassytown and The Islanders both in contention for the award, it seems unlikely that he has a chance of winning it this year but I wouldn’t bet against him for the future. Directly underneath Roberts was another BSFA Award contender: Osama by Lavie Tidhar. Although not Tidhar’s first novel, this was definitely his breakout book and raises expectations for the future. (This also means that Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith – reviewed by Paul Kincaid in this issue – was the only novel on the shortlist not to appear on the poll.)

The third edition of the SF Encyclopaedia, edited by John Clute, David Langford and Peter Nicholls, was made available online for free through Gollancz in October. Although still only in beta, people clearly thought the extra 1.8 million words already published deserved recognition (they’ve added another 200,000 since then). It is also surely likely to win the BSFA Award for non-fiction. In contrast, Eric Brown was perhaps unlucky to miss out on a place on the ballot for his best received novel in years, The Kings Of Eternity, having been previously shortlisted in 1994 for Engineman. Finally, we have this year’s token epic fantasy (last year it was Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay). Only with the BSFA could A Dance With Dragons, seventh instalment in George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire, be considered an underdog!

In total 50 different books received votes, including The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, which just missed the cut off point. Falling similarly short was The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. This monumental anthology is reviewed by Adam Roberts later in the issue (it’s business as usual for the BSFA Review despite the two dozen best of the year pieces starting over the page). I’m particularly pleased that this issue’s reviews heavily features short fiction, chapbooks, fiction in translation and non-fiction as well as a pair of debut science fiction novels by women. It is important that we cover big books like Embassytown and The Islanders but, as those 50 votes show, it is a big, big genre and I want to bring as much of it as possible to you.

BSFA Reviewers’ Poll

=1) The Islanders by Christopher Priest
=1) Embassytown by China Miéville
3) God’s War by Kameron Hurley
4) Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
5) The Silver Wind by Nina Allen
6) By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
7) Osama by Lavie Tidhar
8) SF Encyclopaedia (3rd edition beta), edited by John Clute, David Langford and Peter Nicholls
9) The Kings Of Eternity by Eric Brown
10) A Dance With Dragons by George RR Martin

Reviews

  • The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus, 2012) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Triptych by JM Frey (Dragon Moon Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • The Weird, edited by Anne and Jeff VanderMeer (Corvus 2011) – Reviewed by Adam Roberts
  • Jesus and the Eightfold Path by Lavie Tidhar (Immersion Press, 2011), The Joy of Technology by Roy Gray (Pendragon Press, 2011) and Paintwork by Tim Maughan (Amazon Createspace/ebook, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, edited by Carl-Eddy Skovgaard (Science Fiction Cirklen, 2010) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Lemistry, edited by Ra Page and Magda Raczyńska (Comma Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • David Mitchell: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah Dillon (Gylphi Books, 2011) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by David Seed (Oxford University Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Tony Keen
  • Auntie’s Charlie: An Autobiography by Charles Chilton (Fantom Publishing, 2011) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

Written by Martin

2 April 2012 at 12:48

Posted in sf

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BSFA Review – Vector #269

with 12 comments

In the last issue, I suggested that there was an increasing Transatlantic divide within science fiction. Since then I’ve read two debut SF novels which have further fuelled this belief. Both are published by Night Shade Books in the US but have no UK publisher and, although they are only a mouse click away from the British reader, this at least partially removes them from the discourse. For example, they won’t turn up on the BSFA or Arthur C Clarke Award shortlists because they can’t.

The first of these novels is Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh and there is a small irony here in that the novel is expanded from a short story of the same name which was originally published in this country in Interzone (and shortlisted for the BSFA Award). It is an interesting take on one of the two currently dominant modes of SF: the collapse.

“It’s so hard to believe,” Colin said as we crossed the steaming, empty parking lot toward the bowling alley.
“What?”
“That we’re poor. That we’re homeless.”
“I know.”
“I mean, we have college degrees,” he said.
“I know,” I said.”

Is this now our default future? Not too long ago the singularity was the next big thing and humanity was potentially unbounded. Now, the idea that things are bad and are just going to keep on getting worse seems less pessimism than realism. This is reflected in the increased popularity of depictions of bleak futures by writers both within and without the science fiction community. I was a judge for last year’s Clarke Award and therefore read pretty much every science fiction novel published in the UK and, along with space operas, such stories made up the biggest chunk of submissions. We used to call such narratives “post-apocalyptic” but these days the term seems both too cataclysmic and too abrupt for the type of fiction that is most commonly being produced. A book like The Road by Cormac McCarthy is anomalous, a throwback; rather than nuclear fire or The Day After Tomorrow ice, the world usually ends not with a bang but a whimper. There is no scourged Earth for our lone protagonists to wander through, no clear before and after, rather they must live through the slow degradation of everything they have known. Energy prices keep increasing, food prices keep increasing, unemployment goes up, homelessness goes up, the weather becomes more and more extreme, disease becomes more and more prevalent. Eventually the strain proves too much and the centre cannot hold: things fall apart. I’ve taken to calling this subgenre simply “collapse”; however, you might just as easily call it “soft apocalypse”.

Jasper is a white American with a college degree who somehow finds himself destitute and living the life of a gypsy. That is McIntosh’s term and deliberately adds a racial element; Jasper’s whiteness has been rescinded and those who have managed to keep a precarious hold on their possessions treat him as they would once have treated immigrants. Indeed, the US apparently has no qualms about rescinding his very citizenship: “They’re deporting homeless US citizens to third world countries along will illegals… They’re trying to defend it as retaliation for poor countries encouraging their people to come here. And they’re getting lots of support from people on the right.”

Starting by deliberately echoing the Great Depression, the novel slips forward in time a couple of years with each chapter. This is a technique used to impressive effect in Steve Amsterdam’s brilliantly titled but wildly uneven collapse novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, and allows for the fact that the future will undoubtedly be both weird and changeable. Post-apocalypitic literature was a fiction of finality: this is the end, all options are closed down, reduced to the basics. The collapse is more fluid, as the years pass society ebbs and flows as it tries to keep purchase on the concept of civilisation. So Soft Apocalypse whilst there is a focus on ensuring basic needs (water, food, shelter) are met, there is also a focus on things that would be ridiculous luxuries in the post-apocalyptic world (dating, music, education). The sort of things that pre-collapse young people are interested in, in other words.

McIntosh’s biography describes him as a “psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threats.” Much of this fertile ground is clearly present in the novel and his great achievement is projecting his current milieu into a downwardly spiralling future. But that is also its limitation. Projecting the quarter life crisis of the post-campus novel is something that core SF couldn’t do but once you’ve made that leap there isn’t anywhere else to go. When Jasper speaks it is in a voice we know all too well:

“Sometimes I hated these people, who lived so comfortably while the rest of us barely got by. Maybe I hated them because I always figured I’d be one of them, I don’t know.”

The second of the two books was God’s War by Kameron Hurley which has benefited from liberal online promotion amongst the British science fiction community courtesy of ex-Vector editor Niall Harrison but it remains a novel that is resolutely under the radar. It is a planetary romance, the once popular subgenre that currently finds itself outshone by its well-travelled younger sibling, space opera. The great virtue of space opera is scale, the widescreen baroque as Brian Aldiss brilliantly put it; the planetary romance offers something similar in microcosm, the different cultures and colours packed side-by-side on a globe. In this focus on worldbuilding, the form frequently resembles epic secondary world fantasy (especially since the cultures involved are often at comparable levels of technological advancement). The interplay between fantasy and science fiction is particularly intriguingly in God’s War which critic Farah Mendlesohn has gone so far as to describe as being “sword and sorcery far future fantasy” rather than SF. For me, the novel is clearly and importantly science fiction but has been interestingly filtered through a New Weird sensibility that we would more usually expect to be applied to epic fantasy.

Nasheen and Chenja are the two major powers on the planet of Umayma, both subscribing to slightly different branches of an Islam further filtered through thousands of years of thought and both at war because of this for what is functionally forever. As is traditional, it is young men who are forcibly recruited to feed this machine. In Chenja, this has resulted in a small upper class of old men with dozens of wives. In Nasheen, the prevelance of women on the home front has led to them taking control. This “genocide of gender”, as one character aptly puts it, leads to a matriarchy with no men and a patriarchy with none either.

Nyx is a bel dame, rounding up Nasheenian deserters for the endless war at the front. She is an alpha female, a badass action hero, but not a man with breasts as is so often the way in genre fiction. Earlier in the year an aphorism (or ‘Tweet’, as we call them these days) was floating round the internet wondering: “Why do people say grow some balls? Those things are weak and sensitive. If you want to get tough, grow a cunt. Those things take a pounding.” Nyx would be onboard with that.

When we meet her, she is already ragged; she has just sold her womb and has taken black work in addition to her government contract. The first act ends with her being violently cast out of her murderous sorority and imprisoned. The book returns to her eight years later and, after the density and intensity of the first half, the world becomes a more familiar place. She has assembled a crew and is scratching out a living as a bounty hunter when she is inevitably drawn into a potentially epoch-shattering conspiracy.

It is fair to say that the plot is the most underpowered aspect of God’s War but it is hard to care too much when it is so intellectually and imaginatively stimulating. The science fiction heart of the novel comes through in the intersectionality of Hurley’s work, the way she pushes together and pulls apart huge issues like religion, feminism and warfare. For example, the women of Nasheen claim to love their boys but they idealise them for a supposed virtue that allows them to dehumanise them and ultimately send them to the slaughter, echoing both the way young men are currently treated and reminds us of the way women have similarly been objectified throughout the history. This is melange of ideas is furthered further thickened by the intrusion of the weird; shapeshifters and magicians and insect technology, all with a SF underpinning but used for the same destabilising purpose. The result is a novel that is overwhelming and by the end there is a sense of exhaustion; for Nyx, for the world, for the reader. The sequel, Infidel, was also published this year and opens up the world but is this necessarily a good thing?

Tom Hunter, director of the Clarke Award and BSFA Committee Member Without Portfolio, is fond of saying that the future of SF is hybridity. I’m not entirely convinced by his evangelism but this blending – whether literary fiction with genre as in McIntosh or fantasy with SF as in Hurley – is clearly oxygenating speculative fiction. The US and UK genre publishing pools are big enough to be in no danger of stagnating but a bit more percolation between them would definitely be healthy.

Reviews

  • Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss (Titan Books, 2011) – Review by Alastair Reynolds
  • Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman (Big Finish, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M Valente (Night Shade Books, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • Ventriloquism by Catherynne M Valente (PS Publishing, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
  • The Immersion Book of Steampunk, edited by Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala (Immersion Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by David Towsey
  • Escape Velocity: The Anthology, edited by Geoff Nelder and Robert Blevins (Adventure Books, 2011) – Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
  • Crash Day by Jack Mangan and The Legend of False Dreaming by Toiya Kristen Finley (Pendragon Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Penny Hill
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • Equations of Life by Simon Morden (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by CB Harvey
  • Germline by TC McCarthy (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • The Map of Time by Félix J Palma (HarperCollins, 2011) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt (Tor UK, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • Wither by Lauren DeStefano (HarperCollins, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary (Harper Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Redlaw by James Lovegrove (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Jon Wallace
  • Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? by Max Brallier (Gallery Books, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • Indigo Eyes by Fel Kian and Greyglass by Tanith Lee (Immanion Press 2011) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
  • Echo City by Tim Lebbon (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell (Tor, 2011) – Reviewed by Mark Harding
  • The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
  • Blackdog by KV Johansen (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by AP Canavan
  • A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser

Written by Martin

2 February 2012 at 14:52

BSFA Review – Vector #268

with 4 comments

I’m writing this not long after the announcement of the Hugo Awards at Renovation and again musing about science fiction’s apparent Transatlantic divide. The Hugo Award for Best Novel was won by Connie Willis for two books, Blackout and All Clear, which form a single novel. This novel runs to almost 1,200 pages and I’ve yet to see anyone suggest such verbiage was necessary or served any purpose beyond making the poor reader pay twice for the same story. I’ve also yet to see anyone in the UK praise the novel at all. Rather I’ve seen it remorselessly criticised for research so sloppy it is borderline offensive. In contrast, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House – winner of the BSFA Award and Vector reviewers’ poll as well as being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award – came last in the vote.

This is less about the taste of the Hugo voters – although there is always scope for criticism on those grounds – than the fact publishing in the US and UK seems increasingly out of synch. It is something I noticed earlier in the year when Locus published their recommended reading list and you can also see it on the rest of the Hugo shortlist. Although Blackout/All Clear ultimately won the award, Mira Grant’s Young Adult zombie novel Feed gained the most first preferences. Like NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was published in this country by Orbit and received mixed but respectable reviews. The final book on the list, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, hasn’t been published in this country. This gives a sense that the US and the UK are two quite distinct science fiction cultures.

The Transatlantic divide is more prominent whilst being simultaneously less important in other award categories. No one will be surprised that the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form award consisted of five American films. Even the latest instalment in the surprisingly good Harry Potter series, which makes much use of British labour, is ultimately American under its skin. (Britain does have the dubious honour of having a stranglehold on Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form thanks to Doctor Who.)

For me, it is a much more interesting list than that for Best Novel. It goes without saying that Toy Story 3 is the best film on that list, it also goes without saying that Inception won (but it is hard to get too upset about that). As I said, I liked the Death Hallows Part 1 for its successful polishing of JK Rowling’s turd and, although I hated Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (in large part because I had read the comics), I know a lot of people took it to their hearts. The only film on the list I hadn’t seen was How To Train Your Dragon, based on a series of children’s novels by Cressida Cowell. Having now seen it, I can report that whilst a lot of fun, it shows why Dreamworks will always play second fiddle to Pixar.

Hiccup is a weedy little kid, completely out of place in his village of burly Viking warriors. The biggest and burliest is Stoick the Vast, chief of the village and Hiccup’s dad (as is inevitably the case with Hollywood films, his mother is safely dead). To compensate for his lack of physical prowess, Hiccup is a brilliant engineer, although of course this talent is not held in any esteem by the others. Completely isolated, he secretly lusts after Astrid, a girl who embodies all the Viking virtues he does not. I think you can see where this is going: Hiccup uses his brain to save the day, make his dad proud and get the girl.

The not-so-secret ingredient that adds some much needed spice to the extremely familiar structure of the films is the dragons. They eat the villagers’ sheep and burn down their houses and, however many the villagers kill, there are always more. Despite this rather grim premise, it is joyfully outlined in a clever opening sequence. In another nice touch, there are many different types of dragon, the most deadly and feared being the Night Fury which is so fast no one has actually seen one. Using his mastery of technology, Hiccup manages to wing one but when he catches up with the downed beast he finds himself unable to deliver the coup de grâce. From this a friendship develops between the two because – who would have thought it? – the dragons are just misunderstood. It’s hokey and overly familiar but the animators do a great job of non-verbally conveying the dragon’s intelligence and personality.

And that sums up How To Train Your Dragon: there is quite a bit of wit but it never manages to rise about its generic plotting. As for Blackout/All Clear, well, I’ll be reading it later in the year (Gollancz publish the second volume here in October) so I’ll be able to see if it is as witless British reviewers have suggested or whether the Hugo voters are really onto something.

Reviews

  • Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, exhibition (20 May to 25 September 2011, British Library) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm by John Clute (Beccon, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (PanMacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
  • The Noise Within and The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010 and 2011) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
  • Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Chris Amies
  • Son of Heaven by David Wingrove (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
  • Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Simon and Schuster, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
  • Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek, translated by David Short (Hesperus, 2011) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
  • Black Halo by Sam Sykes (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
  • The Heir Of Night by Helen Lowe (Orbit, 2010) – Review by Mark Connorton
  • The Hammer by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Amanda Rutter
  • Regicide by Nicholas Royle (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
  • Epitaph by Shaun Hutson (2010, Orbit) – Reviewed by Martyn Taylor
  • The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010) – Review by Lalith Vipulananthan
  • Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 2010), The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson (Corgi, 2009) and I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2010) – Reviewed by Jessica Yates
  • Ghost of a Chance by Rhiannon Lassiter (Oxford University Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
  • The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E Richards (Paragon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry

Written by Martin

3 November 2011 at 14:31

BSFA Review – Vector #267

with 4 comments

The Routledge Concise History Of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint marks the conclusion of a sustain period of genre activity from the academic publisher. First in 2009 came the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, a vast work edited by Bould, Vint, Andrew M Butler and Adam Roberts. The prohibitive price put it out of the reach of pretty much everyone but academic libraries until a paperback edition was published at the beginning of the year. It is this edition which Glyn Morgan reviews over the page.

In the course of doing so he notes “the companion to the Companion”: Fifty Key Figures (edited by the same foursome). I reviewed Fifty Key Figures for the online magazine Strange Horizons where I suggested the point of the book “is to broadly map a large and fragmented territory in a way that engages the interested general reader and stimulates further investigation…. Of course, by its nature, it is somewhat jagged itself, fifty spikes jutting up from the vast plains of the genre.”

Now we have the Concise History – the companion to the companion to the Companion, perhaps – which smoothes out that landscape somewhat. At the same time, it brings new risks; Fifty Key Figures does at least avoid the “potentially unattainable comprehensiveness that a more conventional history of the genre demands of both author and reader.” This sentiment is echoed by Bould and Vint themselves in their introduction: “Writing the history of science fiction is an impossible task, and even writing a history is daunting.” Their solution is to acknowledge their limitations, set out their boundaries and provide signposting.

So the use of the word ‘concise’ is important. Compare this book, for example, to the recent Palgrave History of Science Fiction, edited by Adam Roberts (him again). After dealing with the problems of definition, Bould and Vint devote a single chapter to “science fictions before Gernsback.” Roberts spends six chapters and 150 pages getting to the Twentieth Century. This is not a criticism of Roberts’s book, simply a suggestion that the Concise History is more likely to find favour with the general reader, the reader who is perhaps less interested in the genre emerging in the 17th Century as a dialogue between Protestant and Catholic worldviews and more in the themes and concerns of the last eighty years of modern SF.

Each chapter is short – about 20 pages including interpolated text boxes pointing in other directions – starts with a paragraph overview and ends with a bulletpoint summary. We are briskly taken from the Thirties to pretty much Now (the last word goes to China Miéville’s The City & The City). From the outset there is an emphasis on a plurality of approaches. For example, in the chapter on the Thirties (“Proliferations”) care is taken not just to address the rise of the pulp magazines but also comics and radio and TV serials. The editors remark that “histories of the genre usually marginalise or exclude such SF” but they are surely right that our collective understanding of what SF has been as much informed by the latter as the former. This careful look at “enrolment”, the way some works are brought into the canon of science fiction and others moved into other boxes (such as fantasy or horror), lends a gentle but persistent (and entirely welcome) air of revisionism to the book.

Whilst the Routledge Companion and Fifty Key Figures are clearly primarily orientated towards students, they are also of considerable interest to the general reader. The same is even truer of the Concise History, an ideal book for a new SF reader who wants to know where we’ve come from. It is a book I’ve always wanted, a book I wish I had as a child.

Reviews

  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sheryl Vint (Routledge, 2009) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • The Mervyn Stone Mysteries: Geek Tragedy, DVD Extras Include: Murder and Cursed Among Sequels by Nev Fountain (Big Finish, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • Sci-Fi London Film Festival: Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Ignition City, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar, 2010) – Reviewed by James Bacon
  • Twin Spica: Volume 1 by Kou Yaginuma (Vertical, 2010) – Reviewed by Nick Honeywell
  • Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, translated by Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Gantz (2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
  • The Wolf Age by James Enge (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
  • Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by David Towsey
  • The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin Potts
  • Point by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (Angry Robot, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • The Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • Secrets of the Fire Sea by Stephen Hunt (Harper Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • The Horns Of Ruin by Tim Ackers (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by Simon Spurrier

Written by Martin

16 July 2011 at 10:57

Posted in sf

Tagged with , ,

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