Archive for January 2014
I won’t be nominating in either Best Editor Long Form or Best Editor Short Form and I will be voting No award in both categories. I don’t want to re-hash this post too much but these awards can only ever really be for best publisher or best currator, neither of which I feel require a category within the Hugos. They also overlap with the other categories which isn’t very helpful.
Consider last year’s Best Editor Short Form shortlist. First up there are Stanley Schmidt of Analog and Sheila Williams of Asimov’s, both of which would have been eligible for Best Professional Magazine, except that category was abolished on the grounds of being pointless in 1972. Then you’ve John Joseph Adams of Lightspeed Magazine and Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine, both of which were eligible for Best Semiprozine (and indeed both were shortlisted – Adams with Stefan Rudnicki and Clarke with Jason Heller, Sean Wallace, and Kate Baker. Finally you have Jonathan Strahan, editor of three anthologies (The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Of The Year: Volume 6, Under My Hat: Tales From The Cauldron and Edge Of Infinity), all of which were eligible for grab-bag category Best Related Work. [Edit: this isn’t actually true.] Plus, of course, all the individual stories they edited were eligible for the various short fiction categories.
So the concept of best editor is partially unrewardable, partially rewarded by other categories and partially rewarded by proxies. What is left does not justify a single seperate category, let alone two.
Right, the shortlists for the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies are out and they are looking pretty good. As with last year, I’ll be reviewing the nominated short stories and I’d love you to join me. But first – and again, as last year – the art categories.
BSFA Award For Best Artwork
1) Poster for Metropolis by Kevin Tong
One of my nominees, courtesy of a tip-off from Liz Batty. As Tong says, it is inspired by Russian Constructivist design, a highly appealing style in its own right and a good thematic match for the film. But what I like best is Maria’s robot doppelganger emerging from the background and then surging past her.
2) Cover for Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-fi
Hi-Fi was my number vote for last year’s award but he lost out to Black Sheep’s cover for Jack Glass. I’m going to be controversial and say 2013 wasn’t – by his high standards – a great year for him (although I’ll still be nominating him for the Hugos). His vote was split three ways for this award and though this is my favourite of the three, it likes the impact of some of his other work. I like the composition but from the condensed landmarks to the splashes of red on a black and white background, it all feels a bit familiar.
3) ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Richard Wagner
Unlike last year, there are no outright stinkers on the shortlist (which is only three works long) but this is pretty duff. It illustrates a story entitled ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Aliette de Bodard and so cunningly depicts an angel at the heart of some rain. It has the cheap, flat look of much CGI art and the reflection in the window particularly draws attention to this. The only interesting thing about the work is that it places the viewer in the position of a worshiper. No bad enough to warrant No Award, this still can’t win.
The Inky Tentacle
Unlike the BSFA Awards, I don’t get a vote for this. If I did, it would go to the cover for Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema by Amazing15:
But wait, what’s this? It has been shortlisted as a single entry with their cover for Doctorow’s Homeland. Boo, I say. On principle, I’m opposed to this and it smacks of lazy judging but perhaps more importantly, it shackles a great image to an average one. Pirate Cinema is a crisp, clever visual pun of the type that made the cover for Mira Grant’s Feed so effective; Homeland is just pastiche. In contrast to these clean designs, next up are two riotous covers:
There are similarities to the pair but, for me, the cover for C Robert Cargill’s Dreams And Shadows by Sinem Erkas edges out that for Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now by (that man again) Joey Hi-Fi. Its unified colour scheme makes the weirdness of the detailed illustration that bit more macabre, a portal into the book itself. Hi-Fi, in contrast, splatters the book all over the cover but without including much in the way of his trademark touches. The strong shadow on the central characters face is halfway there but really, this could be a lot of other people. And what are those at the top? Tentacles? Blatant award bait! By this point, I think it is fair to say that the judges are fans of colour blocking:
I go back and forth on the cover for Monica Hesse’s Stray by Gianmarco Magnani. I like the fact it deliberately signals a different tradition of design and I love the cropping of the image. At the same time, the image itself isn’t anythign to write home about it is all slightly anemic. It summons up ennui rather than teenage angst. Finally, there us the cover for Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic by Will Staehle probably is a good guide to the contents but really all you can say about it is that it is green. I don’t think it has much of a place on a shortlist that already contains the Amazing15 covers.
I found it very easy to come up with my Best Fan Writer list but Best Fanzine is much harder. This is because, whilst both are historic terms, fan writer maps across nicely to the world of bloggers whereas fanzines are a bit tricker. I do not think all websites or even all blogs are fanzines; for me, they have to be collaborative (either through shared ownership or significant guest involvement) and to have a strong sense of community.
1) Pornokitsch – Nuff said.
2) Nerds Of A Feather – I first came across this bunch when they interview Paul Kincaid (in two parts) at the end of 2012. Over the last year I’ve watched them became the best group blog going, chiefly because of the staggering range of things they cover. Is anyone else writing about the death of the western, Deltron 3030 and, er, Pepsi-chicken flavoured crisps? Plus, of course, they use the awesome power of MATH.
3) FerretBrain – If you want a wall of text by a very clever person about something you previously had no interest in, then FerretBrain is your go to place. Sadly Kyra has been quiet for most of the year but we still get plenty of braindumps from ArthurB and Dan H to chew on.
4) The Book Smugglers – Ana and Thea’s enterprise is now so big that I’m sometimes surprised it can be contained in a single blog. It is of particular interest to me as a reader of the branch of children’s literature known as Young Adult but they have also consistently provided a platform to an incredibly diverse set of voices (not least through the annual Smugglivus).
5) A Dribble Of Ink – Pretty much the opposite of a traditional fanzine (or, indeed, Ferretbrain). Aidan Moher’s blog is an experiment in pushing the professionalism of fandom as far as it will go. This nomination is less about Moher’s own writing than his focus on design and illustration as well as his curation and ambition.
There are, of course, still paper fanzines (although even these are probably now more commonly read as PDFs rather than actual paper). I don’t read any of these.
Of course, awards season means not just this but actually talking about good stuff. I am a Hugo voter this year and I’m planning to post as much about my own nominations list as possible, starting with Best Fan Writer.
1) Abigail Nussbaum – Hands down the best blogger in the field. I am in awe of Nussbaum’s ability to maintain the holy trinity of blogging: writing regularly about a broad range of subjects in depth. Even her brief reading round up posts are more in-depth than a lot of online reviews but she writes at length about books, films and television (and even a bit of Shakespeare). She missed the shortlist by one nomination last year, let’s not make the same mistake in 2014. (As an aside, I’m very pleased to have Nussbaum as an editor at Strange Horizons and I’m glad she still publishes her own reviews there. However, I wish her reviews for SH attracted as many comments as posts on her blog.)
2) Jared Shurin – Probably the best blogger in the field in the UK but also the most fun (for example, slightly off-the-wall stuff like this. As well as this, Shurin is also the best ambassador for a lot of subgenres that don’t get much interest downwards from critics or articulation upwards from fans. Obviously some other people do talk intelligently about, say, epic fantasy but not as consistently or comprehensively. (Pornokitsch is obviously a shared endeavour and though Anne Perry writes less now she’s joined the publishing world, she is still an important part of the blog. I will be nominating Pornokitsch seperately as Best Fanzine.)
3) Nina Allan – I’ve known Allan as a writer for some time but 2013 was the year where she really came to prominence as a critic. She was the most prolific reviewer at Strange Horizons last year (including contributing a Short Fiction Snap Shot) as well as writing extensively on her blog (which doesn’t allow comments – boo!). I have particularly valued her perspective on horror such as in this post on FrightFest.
4) Jonathan McCalmont – McCalmont hasn’t quite done a Mamatas but he is writing noticeably less than he has in the past and 2013 might be the last year he makes a significant contribution to the field. He does still write critically, including for me at the BSFA Review, but his contribution in 2013 was also strongly political. When a fan can put a lot of effort into supporting the Hugos and be made with aggressive stupidity and, ultimately, self-sabotage in response from those overly-invested in the award, the bluff needs to be called. The genre needs more people like McCalmont and fewer like Standlee.
5) Requires Hate – This is a purely political nomination. If there is one thing that holds speculative fiction back, it is its massive complacency. She was a bit quiet towards the end of the year but RH was still a well deserved boot up the arse.
Today is the last day of nominations for the BSFA Awards. Members can nominate as many times as they wish (I’m on my third set) and here are some things I’d particularly like to see make it onto the shortlist:
- Best Novel: iD by Madeline Ashby
- Best Short Fiction: ‘Spin’ by Nina Allan
- Best Artwork: Yuko Shimizu’s cover for The Melancholy Of Mechagirl by Catherynne M Valente
- Best Non-Fiction: Jared Shurin on the Gemmell Legend Award shortlist.
Unfortunately, along with the positives of award season (talking about great books) there now comes an inevitable negative (authors posting their eligibility). I thought I’d written my definitive position on this two years ago but sadly things have worsened since then. So here are five beliefs I hold that together explain why I think author eligibility posts are selfish, destructive and, for the majority of authors, counter-productive.
1) Posting your eligibility is lobbying for awards
This should be blindingly obvious. The only possible effect of posting about the eligibility of your work is to change the number of people who nominate that work. This is, after all, why authors do it. Yet the fact that this is lobbying is mysterious elided in most conversations about eligibility posts which instead subsume it into the broader issue of self-promotion or couch it in the neutral terms of increasing voter information.
The brilliant thing for authors is that they don’t need to say “nominate me” or even “my work is worth nominating” (which strangely they recoil from) for the lobbying to be effective. But to claim there is no connection is about as sophisticated example of sophistry as this.
2) Reader voted awards are for readers, not authors
Perhaps this is a more understandable bit of confusion as speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro. So in the Hugos we have fans (some of whom are pros) voting for fan categories (for which pros are eligible), for pro categories (for which fans are eligible) and even, bizarrely, for industry categories that it is impossible for them to know anything about. But regardless of whether you are a fan or a pro or somewhere in between, when it comes to nominating fiction, you are acting in a specific capacity: as a reader.
A helpful analogy might be to reviews. An author might review another author but they must do so with their reader hat on and whilst a positive review might benefit the author receiving it, that is a side effect of its main purpose to inform other readers of the quality of the text. The same is true of awards where the purpose of voting is for readers to form a critical consensus around the best fiction of the year. Authors ‘helping’ voters to complete their ballots are no more neutral than authors ‘helping’ reviewers to interpret their work.
Authors have more power than readers and it is easy for them to unintentionally poison reader spaces, whether that is reviews or awards. Yet whilst the social norms preventing this still apply quite strongly to reviews, they have been stretched to breaking point with respect to awards. This year, we have seen authors accelerate the trend of taking ownership of the space by actively erasing readers. Take, for example, this quote from author Amal El-Mohtar’s widely discussed post about author’s publishing their eligibility: “There’s a peculiar, unbearable, vicious smugness in sitting back and talking about how tacky it is of people to list their publications and that of course YOU won’t do so because while winning awards is nice naturally YOU don’t really care about them.” The conversation has entirely shifted from readers to authors, from voting for awards to winning awards.
3) Eligibility posts don’t help readers to make their ballots more diverse
A new argument made this year – and the key thrust of El-Mohtar’s justification for such posts – is that if all authors publish their eligibility then this will increase diversity in award shortlists by correcting the tendency of women and minorities to be less comfortable at self-promotion. The first thing to say is that self-promotion (“please read my book”) is not the same as lobbying (“please tell people that my book is one of the best of the year”) and it is perfectly possible to want people to be more comfortable in promoting their work without wanting them to lobby for it.
This brings us to the arms race argument where authors might concede that perhaps in an ideal world they wouldn’t need to lobby but since some people do (and white men are more likely to do it) then others need to do it or they risk being drowned out. As a point of principle, a vote for yourself can never be a noble act; as a point of practicality, eligibility posts are an incredibly poor way of making your voice heard. If you are worried that someone has got a megaphone, cupping your hands together and shouting is not going to get you far. More than that, complaining about those people asking both of you to keep it down is just going to entrench the existing problem.
4) Readers are not employers
Part of the problem, I think, is two related issues intersecting in an unhelpful way. The first is that women are systematically disadvantaged in the workplace due to patriarchal culture, both visible (women remain the default carer and earnings never recover if you leave the workplace to become a carer) and invisible (the way women have been taught to act and the way people perceive the way women act). The second is that women are equally disadvantaged in the arts. This later point is set out by Coffee & Ink in this post in favour of eligibility posts but the trouble with the intersection is set out in the comments:
There has been a recent study showing pretty conclusively that in businesses that tout their culture as being one of meritocracy, so therefore, you know, no pesky diversity issues need to be considered, white men are rewarded much more […] And while the study may have looked at businesses, writing and publishing and all that….is a business.
The problem is suggesting that awards are rewards equivalent to bonuses or promotions. Readers aren’t authors’ employers, publishers are authors’ employers; readers are at the bottom of the power differential, not the top. This is not to say that readers should abdicate all responsibility for ensuring that reader spaces are diverse, merely that it is most appropriate for readers themselves to address the issue. The need for the employee to be assertive to secure a deserved performance reward does not map across to literary awards (and where it does map across – for example, contracts – it needs to be directed at publishers). Rather there is a need for a collective discussion about what readers want from their awards, a discussion made harder by authors attempting to take ownership of it.
5) Literature is not a business
Yes, publishing is an industry but literature is an art. From my perspective, speculative fiction increasingly seems to be losing sight of this and we are moving to a situation where reviews and awards are viewed simply as publicity material. Worse, at any sign of push back to this cultural shift, authors play the victim. Slowly it is becoming the new norm for readers and authors alike.
I find it very sad. I don’t want to live in a world where books are the same as toothbrushes and readers are just consumers. I want awards to be about readers recognising and discussing exceptional work. At its best, eligibility posts would be irrelevant to this process since authors are uniquely poorly placed to assess the quality of their own work. But the ubiquity of such posts and their vociferous defence means they become actively harmful.
So I would like authors to be honest. If, on the one hand, you think your story is one of the six best published last year then say so. If, on the other hand, you don’t think your story is that good but, for what ever reason, you still want the kudos of an award then say that. If you can’t or won’t say either, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all. Or, even better, do what readers do: talk about someone else’s work.
My review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is up now at Strange Horizons.
Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can’t see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.
The backstory is that about four years ago, I started hearing interesting things about a writer called Mark Newton. He’d already published a short novel for a small press but his full debut, Nights Of Villjamur, was coming out shortly for PanMacmillan so I asked him for a copy so I could review it for Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was very good. Firstly, the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be whilst simultaneously trying to be too many different things. (If you will allow me some speculation, I think that Newton’s split career as bookseller, publisher and author played a role here and that some triangulation and second-guessing occurred that was ultimately unhelpful to writing the novel.) Secondly – and at a fundamental level – it wasn’t very well written.
Now, you may assume that nothing gives me more pleasure than to write a negative review of a debut novel in a field I love by a person I am well disposed to. Certainly, that was the assumption of several of the people who left comments underneath my review. It didn’t and I resolved to make sure I read Newton again in the future, although I thought it would probably be best to skip the rest of Legends Of The Red Sun series. So when his new book came through the post, it went straight to the top of the pile. As the quote above suggests, I wasn’t able to write the review I had hoped to write this time either.
Drakenfeld has definitely solved one of the problems I identified: Newton has a very clear idea of the story he wants to tell and is equally focused in delivering it. This clarity is a welcome change to the mess of Villjamur but seems to come hand-in-hand with a suggestion that the ambition he signaled but didn’t deliver on early in his career has now been completely abandoned (the triangulation has succeeded, if you will). The bigger problem, however, is that the novel still isn’t very well written.
As it happens, a couple of weeks after I wrote my review, I bumped into Newton in a pub basement in Brighton. We had a chat and he predictably was a lovely bloke. So why am I publishing something that damns his work and threatens his livelihood? Surely, if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The answer is that the author and the work are two separate things and the only way to be a book reviewer is to successfully compartmentalise them. I can like Newton as a person and dislike his work and there needn’t – shouldn’t – be any connection between the two. Much online book blogging has been rendered pointless by the failure to grasp this distinction.
Of course, human nature is messier than that; intellect and emotion can’t be so easily divided. Creating art is a hugely personal endeavour and what is being criticised is the product of blood, sweat and tears so it is natural to feel wounded. On the other side of the fence, the whole reason I am writing this is because of a residual sense of sheepish hypocrisy. But the concept of manners simply doesn’t apply here and it is dangerous to import it from social situations. It goes without saying that I think negative reviews have value (to inform and entertain potential readers and to contribute to a wider discourse). It should also go without saying that criticising a professional writer’s published art is entirely different to telling someone that their shoes are ugly or the dinner they’ve just cooked you tasted of ass. Unfortunately this isn’t the case and negative reviews are often seen as direct attacks on the author – and, increasingly, their fans – unless they are couched in the politest and most equivocal terms.
My review is not polite and it is not equivocal; it baldly states that Drakenfeld is a bad book and it does so in pretty scathing fashion. This tone is not thoughtless rudeness, it is an integral part of writing a review that has value beyond merely telling a prospective customer whether they should spend their money on it. It is a public, performative piece of criticism to partner a public, performative piece of art.
Anyway, the next round is on me, Mark.
This year, I want to read more and I want to write more, both here and elsewhere. Pretty much the same resolution I failed to keep last year. Being a parent takes up a lot of time but, more than that, it eats your mental reserves and when I have free time these days I usually want to play something mindless on my phone or go for a walk. The upshot is that I’ve not read a book in months and I want to get back in the saddle. I’m not going to set myself any targets or be too ambitious – even one book a month would be an improvement – but I do want to achieve a few things:
- Finish reading The Space Opera Renaissance and start a new short story project. These things are marathons: not massively enjoyable but good for me and a real sense of achievement.
- Write an entry for Monsters Vs Aliens for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve had a pretty productive year for them all told but this is the only entry outstanding from my section of the cinema entry.
- Write something for Arc. Sorry, Simon!
- Review one film, one television series and one computer game for Strange Horizons (realistically, I might settle for achieving just one of those).
- Review four non-SF novels. When I set up this blog, I thought it would be more mixed than it has turned out to be so I’d like to push it a bit more in the direction of, say, Eve’s Alexandria or Follow The Thread.