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Archive for November 3rd, 2011

BSFA Review – Vector #268

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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.


  • 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