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Archive for April 2nd, 2012

BSFA Review – Vector #270

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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


  • 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

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Gender Parity Starts At Home

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Niall Harrison has just completed his second SF Count for Strange Horizons, his survey of coverage of speculative fiction by women. As with last year, it is bad news for women. It is also bad news for me as reviews editor of Vector. The percentage of books by women in the BSFA Review has gone down from 25.6% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2011. Similarly, the percentage of women reviewing for Vector was gone down from 29.8% in 2010 to 25.5% in 2011 (the actual number of individual reviewers has remained the same). Having presided over a decline in what were already weak numbers has been a wake up call for me because for all the fine words I made after last year’s SF Count, I’ve taken my eye off the ball. Which is exactly how these things come to pass; not through malice but the privilege of inattention, disengagement from an issue that harms people other than me. I have taken steps to improve things this year so I hope BSFA members will see an improvement and I also hope they will hold me to account.

As well as being an editor, I am a writer. My own editorials in Vector over 2011 managed gender parity but then I only covered three books. What about reviewing in general? Renay at Ladybusiness recently looked at the balance on individual blogs and I thought I would do the same for my reviews:

Overall since 2001, 22.1% of the books I’ve reviewed have been by women and I’ve only achieved gender parity in 2006 and 2011 (years when I haven’t published many reviews). Most of my reviews have appeared in SF Site (15.8%) and Strange Horizons (23.5%) but I have been closest to parity in Vector (32.4%). It is perhaps a positive sign that for the first five years I was reviewing I averaged 16.7% whereas for the second five years I averaged 25.9%.

Whilst I’ve written a lot about books on my own sites, I’ve excluded blog reviews from these stats as I only started formally considering these as reviews last year and I’m not going back and counting all the informal ones prior to that. However, if the fromal blog reviews were included it would put me up to 26.8% overall and 70% for 2011. This is mostly due to starting the year of reading women last year which shows that even a modest effort like this can have a substantial impact.

How does that compare to my reading in general? Well, in 2004 I started keeping track of everything I read, including the gender of the author. It turns out I am slightly better when it comes to reviewing but not significantly so:

I make that 16.9% for the seven years overall (as an aside, fully a tenth of that total is Pat Barker). I stopped recording these figures in August 2010 when I was on 20.6%. This was when I became an Arthur C Clarke judge and was no longer able to write about most of what I was reading in public; given the well-known gender imbalance in British science fiction publishing, the total figures for 2010 and 2011 are unlikely to be any better than previous and quite conceivably worse. When I stopped being a judge and the responsibility of silence was lifted from my shoulders, I started tallying the figures again. As it happens, I have managed to accidentally achieve gender parity with the eight books I’ve read by choice so far this year. My plan for the rest of 2012 is make a conscious decision to continue this by deliberately reading one book by a woman for every book I read by a man.

(Huge thanks to Liz Batty for helping me wrangle the charts out of Google.)

Written by Martin

2 April 2012 at 10:33

Posted in books, sf

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