Archive for February 2012
I’ve just started reading Martin Amis’s latest novel, The Pregnant Widow. It is very Amis-y. But, with my science fiction hat on, I was struck by the quotation from Alexander Herzen’s From The Other Shore (1848–1850) from which the novel takes its title:
The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
The list of submissions for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award have just been published at Torque Control. As with last year, there is a prize for guessing the shortlist of six novels (due to be announced at the end of March). No one managed to guess all six last year – in fact, four out of six was the best – so will the judges be able to completely confound fans again this time?
Of course, the guessing already started a while ago. Last week I put Lavie Tidhar on the spot on Twitter and asked him to predict the shortlist. He came up with the following six: Embassytown, The Islanders, Ready Player One, By Light Alone, The Company Man and Wake Up And Dream. He added that he’d be glad with hitting three out of six. Well, as it turns out, he can only have guessed a maximum of four of the shortlist since Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett weren’t submitted. It is possible that other novels which people might have thought were contenders weren’t submitted either; having heard Martin McGrath advocate for it, I would certainly have liked to have seen City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry. Fans of children’s literature will also notice that not much was submitted. No Blood Red Road by Moira Young, for example.
But there you go: the field is big, it isn’t neatly distributed and the very concept of science fiction is often in the eye of the beholder. There were sixty novels submitted this year which is huge amount to read and covers the vast majority of the field. It is also more than enough to produce an excellent shortlist (go on, I dare you to guess it). However, one of the big strengths of the Arthur C Clarke Award is the fact it aspires to be completely comprehensive, to cover as much of the UK science fiction field as humanly possible, so I hope all publishers will continue to take a broad view of what constitutes science fiction in the future.
Last year I set myself the challenge of reading and writing about one science fiction novel written by a woman each month.
- Moxyland by Lauren Buekes
- Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand
- Arslan by MJ Engh
- Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh
- The Flood by Maggie Gee
- Maul by Tricia Sullivan (further discussion at Torque Control)
- Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy
- Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
- The Two Of Them by Joanna Russ
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
The eagle-eyed will notice that that isn’t twelve novels. I ran out of steam and vowed to continue this year instead with another batch. Here is what I assembled over Christmas:
Some of those were languishing on my shelves, some were kindly donated by Ian Sales of SF Mistressworks and were picked up from Amazon (and only available secondhand or imported, obviously). Since the Clarke Award shortlist has now been decided (and will be announced at the end of the month), I’ve got the time to think about other fiction so here is the schedule for the year:
- March: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
- April The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin
- May: A Plague of Angels by Sheri S Tepper
- June: Hav by Jan Morris
- July: Cyteen by CJ Cherryh
- August: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
- September: The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- October: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
- November: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
- December: Shikasta by Doris Lessing
If any one would like to join me in reading any of those books in those particular months, I would welcome the conversation. And I think we are still due a discussion of Spirit over at Torque Control, aren’t we? In addition, I will be trying to read and review more books by women in general and my review of Blood Red Road by Moira Young is forthcoming at Strange Horizons.
But it isn’t just about what I review. As reviews editor for the BSFA, I also have a big say in what other people review and the books that are covered in Vector. Niall Harrison will be repeating the SF count again this year and, as part of this, I’ve tallied up the coverage of books by men and women in Vector. The ratio is very poor. So it is all very well talking the talk but I’ve clearly taken my eye off the ball and I need to be much more proactive in 2012 in ensuring speculative fiction by women is visible in Vector.
They rise from the granite, sun themselves a little on the unsheltered plateau and drop through air to their valleys. Or they cut their way out under wreaths of snow, escaping in a tumult. Or hang in tangles of ice on the rock faces. One cannot know the rivers till one has seen them at their sources; but this journey to the sources is not to be undertaken lightly. One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable. There are awakened also in oneself by the contact elementals that are as unpredictable as wind or snow.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
It is Hugo nominations time and last night on Twitter there was a bit of a conversation about nominating Devi Pillai for Best Editor Long Form. This was kicked off by this post by NK Jemisin entitled ‘Give my editor a Hugo’. In addition, to Pillai’s work on her own books, she also put forward this list of other works:
- The Way of Shadows, Beyond the Shadows and Shadow’s Edge (the Night Angel trilogy) by Brent Weeks
- The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
- Blameless, Changeless, Heartless, etc. (the Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger
- Blood Rights by Kristen Painter
- Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
- Cold Magic (the Spiritwalker Trilogy) by Kate Elliott
- Working for the Devil (the Dante Valentine series) by Lilith Saintcrow
- Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan
- The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood
I have only read three of those novels: The Heroes and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie and The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtney Grimwood. I love the Abercrombies, I think the Grimwood is the worst thing he’s ever published. It also strikes me as a novel with substantial issues around structure, pace, point of view and consistency, things I would expect and editor to take a firm hand with and things that would disuade me from nominating Pillai for an editorial award. At this point Jonathan Strahan made the inevitable comment: “The problem is, and this is why I suggested my proposed Hugo rules change, you can’t know if it is or isn’t. You’re assuming.”
He’s right. I haven’t seen Grimwood’s original manuscript, I have no idea of the work Pillai did on subsequent drafts, all I have to go on is the finished text. Only two people know for sure, I just have to rely on the evidence. In some cases the evidence seems overwhelming such as with Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan which appears to be not only a very bad book but cursorily edited in order to make a quick buck. But it remains an assumption (as editors will delight in telling you if you make any such inference).
There is more than a little hypocriscy to Strahan’s position though. He has been nominated for Best Editor Short Form for the last four years and has not declined these nominations. Yet he believes them to be meaningless, that the people who vote for category are incapable of making any judgement about them. Only authors and editors themselves would be able to nominate, meaning each editor would have two nominations at the maximum. That doesn’t make for a viable award. So I hope if he is nominated this year, Strahan will stick to his principles and decline. In an ideal world, all editors would do the same and the awards would be abolished since what they seek to reward is so clearly incompatible with a popular vote.
Strahan’s own prefered rules change is to give the Best Novel award to both author and editor. This is embarrassing. It is, however, entirely in keeping with the philosophy of the Hugos: awards for all and contorted categories that exist nowhere else. In the rest of the literary world, awards for novels are awards for authors as should obviously be the case. Implicit in an award-winning novel is the idea that the editor has done well to acquire and publish it and they will undoubtably be congratulated by their peers for this. Similarly for magazines and anthologies, success for them implies success for the editor. But it is self-servingly ridiculous to try and formalise such industry praise within a fan award such as the Hugos, particularly since doing so would in no way avoid the problem of fans having to make assumptions. Both categories need to go and not be replaced.
In 1994 I bought my first issue of Interzone. It was half price from a cardboard box of back issues in a secondhand book shop on Camden High Street, just before the canal. The bookshop is long gone but the experience was formative. For my birthday that year, I asked for a subscription to the magazine and I remained a subscriber for the next twelve years. This obviously wasn’t my first exposure to speculative fiction but it was my first sustained, systematic reading of the genre and it was my first exposure to SF criticism. I have forgotten the names of many of the reviewers who introduced me to writing about SF but some like John clute and Nick Lowe, writing about fiction and cinema respectively, have stuck with me ever since.
That same year, I also asked for a copy of the second edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, edited by Clute and Peter Nicholls. My uncle duly bought it for me and, out of ignorance and hunger, I decided to read this bloody big book cover to cover. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this but it is hard to think of a better crash course in the history of the genre, its possibilities and the possibilities of writing about it.
So it was a slightly strange experience to find myself last week in flat not five minutes walk away from that lost bookshop, having dinner with Clute, Lowe and Graham Sleight, the managing editor of the third edition of encyclopedia. Strange but extremely enjoyable. The upshot of this meal is that I will be writing some of the cinema entries need to update the encyclopedia from 1992 to 2012. The first three of these have already been published: Pandorum, Avatar and Moon. Those last two were co-authored with Lowe which feels more than a little surreal to write. I will continue to work with him on ensuring that the essential films and directors are covered but, for the moment, I am mostly going to be concentrating on children’s animated science fiction of the last decade or so.
So, I’ve now read the five shortlisted stories for the BSFA Award and thanks to everyone else who read them and commented, it has been informative for me and hopefully enjoyable to you. If you are a BSFA member or are attending Eastercon, please do read the stories as it would be nice to have a high turnout for the vote. They are all available online but we also hope to make them available again as a printed booklet for members. Once you’ve done so, I’d welcome any more comments here as the deadline approaches.
I’ve set out my ballot below with links to each of the discussions. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with my rankings but I wonder if anyone would disagree that, considered as a whole, it isn’t a particularly strong shortlist.
In terms of coverage of the field, it is broad in some directions and narrow in others. There are two science fiction stories: one set on another planet in the far future, one set on an alternative Earth in the near past. Then there are three fantasies that are all set in Britain and deal with a protagonist facing the intrusion of a single example of the fantastic: a magic clock, animated oil rigs and a satyr. Only one of the stories – and ironically, one of the fantasies – is set in the near future. There is a marked absence of the core tropes that people associate with science fiction and fantasy. Not a criticism, of course, but as someone who doesn’t read a lot of genre short fiction, I wonder how representative it is.
1) ‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville
The clear winner for me and the only shortlisted story that looks anything like an award-winner. It’s Miéville, innit?
2) ‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley
I liked this a lot but I primarily liked it as a companion piece to God’s War. However, it seems to have worked for Aishwarya Subramanian and Fernando Hugo, even though it was their first exposure to Hurley.
3) ‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ by Paul Cornell
A fun setting that I’d like to read more of but only in a broader context. Here it is a bead on a necklace and I want to see the whole thing, particularly if the ending really did attempt to conceal a huge paradigm shift.
I can’t actually remember if the awards have a No Award option but, if they do, this is where it would go.
4) ”The Silver Wind’ by Nina Allen
A huge disappointment from an author I admire. In the comments, Niall Harrison articulates the virtues I would usually associate with Allan but I can’t find them here.
5) ‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson
A familiar story badly executed at unneccessary length. British SF writers really need to get out of this rut but perhaps there is no incentive since this style of story obviously continues to prove popular.