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Archive for February 2014

Hugo Nominations – Best Related

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Everyone thinks the Hugos need fixing but everyone has different solution. For example, the G at Nerds Of A Feather suggests in ‘A Modest Proposal For Hugo Reform’ that the number of categories need to be expanded. As I say in the comments, I think the opposite: that number of categories need to be reduced to concentrate on the things the voters know well. The corollary to this is that I think better use should be made of the Best Related category to cover everything the other categories exclude.

The wording of the category is: “The best work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, published in the prior calendar year and which is either non-fiction or noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text.” That is pretty broad as – in addition, to non-fiction – there are lots of things that are neither fiction or non-fiction. In practice, though, the award is dominated by criticism, biography and writing about writing with the occasional art book thrown in for good measure. So my list of nominations is a deliberate attempt to push the boundaries of the definition.

But just before that, two quick points on exclusions. Discussing Best Editor: Short Form, I said that collections and anthologies were eligible for this category. This is incorrect and was based on a misleading description of the category (from the Nerds Of A Feather post linked above, in fact). I would still like it to be true but there is no way to stretch the actual definition that far so I’ve not included any this time. Discussing Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form, I said that it should really be Best Film. If that ever came to pass then I’d nominate computer games here; since it hasn’t yet, my nomination for Tomb Raider goes where it is most likely to attract other nominations.

1) Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers Of Space by Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman

Astrocat_005

Popular science book for children in which Dr Walliman’s tour of the solar system is accompanied by Newman’s lovely Soviet-influenced illustrations (all the rage in SF art at the minute). It is simultaneously educational, inspiring and beautiful. If you truly want to install a sense of wonder in your kids, buy them this.

2) Les Revenants by Mogwai

Soundtrack to the French television series by the Scottish post-rock stalwarts. A more sombre affair than their own albums, chilly, coiled and gently menacing. Fuck filk. (By the way, this year’s Rave Tapes is even better.)

3) Speculative Fiction 2012, edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin

Spec Fiction 2012

Collection of the best of internet criticism compiled by one of my Best Fan Writer nominations and some other guy. I don’t own the book but I’ve read the individual pieces. This vote, however, is for the enterprise itself. The baton has now been passed to Ana Grilo and Thea James, the perfect pair of, er, pair of hands.

4) Red Doc> by Anne Carson

You could
take the entirety of the
common sense of humans
and put it in the palm of
your hand and still have
room for your dick
.

A mix of poetry, drama and narrative that holds the unique distinction of being shortlisted for both the Kitschies and the TS Elliot Award. It is a painfully grounded fantasy that manages to be instantly welcoming and accessible whilst retaining layer after layer of depth. (Niall Harrison will tell you that this book belongs in the Best Novella category as it is a science fiction or fantasy story of between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Don’t believe his lies.)

5) Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace

wagner_large_0

Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in which a Hari Kunzi story is matched with twenty works from designers and illustrators (that is Mario Wagner above). If you missed it, a book is available. Here is Lila Garrott’s review for Strange Horizons.

What these nominations all have in common is that they are substantial, discrete pieces of work that are not eligible for any other category. Some people are taking it even further than that and I’ve seen a couple of nominations for individual blog posts such as ‘We Have Always Fought’ (which, incidentally, is being collected in Speculative Fiction 2013). This doesn’t seem quite right to me – it just about works in the BSFA Non-Fiction Award but only just and it is much narrower in scope. Equally, whilst I will be nominating a Janelle Monáe video in Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, I’m not convinced you can brigade the album and its video into a single Best Related nomination. But more power to them. Just because it isn’t how I see the award, doesn’t mean I want to set up a needlessly complicated definition. This urge to cover and control everything is part of the problem behind several of the current categories when Best Related offers a wonderful opportunity to be unconstrained.

Written by Martin

28 February 2014 at 09:54

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Hugo Nominations – Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form

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At the risk of repeating myself, I am in favour if giving awards to things that do exist (for example, novels and short stories) and against giving awards for things that don’t exist (for example, novelettes and semiprozines). The best dramatic presentation categories, however, are even worse than nonexistant. Here we have a made-up term for a collection of non-comparable things that have perfectly good names, arbitarily divided by length. To all intents and purposes, Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form is the Best Film category. A film has won every year since the award was created except for 2012 and 52 out of 55 nominees were films. The award definition might talk grandly of “a dramatized production in any medium, including film, television, radio, live theater, computer games or music” but this is obviously bollocks. why not simply reflect the reality by calling it what it is?

The lone non-film winner was the first season of Game Of Thrones because ludicrously episodes of a television series can be nominated in Short Form and the series itself can be nominated in Long Form. The picture with Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form itself is less stark but still overwhelming: a TV episode has won every year except for 2004 and 2009 and 47 out of 55 nominees were TV episodes. Even these two exceptions did not provide good evidence for keeping the criteria open; both ‘Gollum’s Acceptance Speech’ and ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ were essentially bonus prizes to well-established and rewarded fandoms.

This year, one of my film nominations is eligible for both Long Form and Short Form because it is 96 minutes long which falls within the 90 minutes, plus or minus 10%, boundary. Obviously I’m not going to nominate it in Short Form but I shouldn’t really have the option. However, since the category is currently open to all ‘dramatic presentations’, I am including one non-film nominee (and will include one non-television nominee for Short Form). But hopefully in the future I won’t have that option either.

1) Upstream Color – I remember very clearly the unexpected mindfuck of watching Shane Carruth’s Primer at the Sci-Fi London film festival, stumbling out into Soho dazed. Terrifyingly, that was a decade ago and it is only now that Carruth has followed up his debut feature. It would be a cliche to say it was worth the wait – a cliche Carruth would probably balk at given his abortive attempts to make other films – but it is a remarkable film, made even more so by extent of the maker’s endevour (Carruth wrote, directed, shot, scored and edited the film as well as playing the lead) It has the beauty of Terrance Malick’s late films with an added intellectual and imaginative heft. It is, in other words, the sort of film that has no chance of getting on the shortlist of the Hugos. Go and watch it immediately and then read Abigail Nussbaum’s four thoughts (a good example of why she should be nominated for Best Fan Writer).

2) Tomb Raider – I first heard of this as ‘the game where Lara gets raped’ which is a pretty good example of the internet’s tendency to work itself up into a froth on the basis of imperfect information. In fact, the latest installment of the series, written by Rhianna Pratchett, is pretty much the opposite. Here is Liz Bourke’s review but the best and most concise description comes from Renay: “escape from Patriarchy Island”. It is also a wonderfully balanced, intuitive and immersive game (exactly the opposite of Bioshock Infinite which a few wrongheads have suggested nominating).

3) Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2Monster’s Inc is not just a great film but also an extremely original science fiction film. So it was a huge disappointment that the sequel was simply a mildly amusing campus comedy. In contrast, Meatballs 2 is gonzo SF that takes its insane premise – the ability to make it rain food – and runs wild with it. A perfect example of the freedom that exists within children’s animation to produce films that would be considered avant garde in adult Hollywood. Writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are also responsible for The Lego Movie so I’ve got to see that soon. [Edit: Apologies to Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn who actually directed this film – Lord and Miller did the first one.]

4) A Field In England – In short order, Ben Wheatley has established himself as the most exciting director in Britain. His signature is to play with genres and here we have a collision of English civil war, passion play, John Dee occultism and psychedelic trip. It is all satisfyingly odd, if unmistakably a side project. This year he is adapting JG Ballard’s High Rise, which is very exciting, and directing a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, which is deeply conflicting.

5) Byzantium – Do we really need another vampire film? Probably not. But if we have to have them, I’d like more like this. Neil Jordan builds his film around two wonderful performances from Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as young mother and teenage daughter, locked in that relationship for eternity. Sadly, it is two thirds character study to one third vampire schlock but it is hard not to cheer at the hearty ‘fuck you, vampire patriarchy’ of otherwise silly plot.

I would have liked to post my Short Form nominations at the same time as these but I haven’t found the time for my telly watching yet. Since the point of publicly posting my nominations is to encourage others with voting rights to seek them out, I thought I better just crack on with these ones. Do check them out, if they sound interesting.

Written by Martin

27 February 2014 at 10:14

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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ by Tori Truslow – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ was originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #113.

Usually I would say read the story before reading this post. This time, I’ll say read the story but then read this Short Fiction Snapshot from Abigail Nussbaum before reading on. Done? Okay.

First impressions are important but they can also be deceptive. Most of the commenters on Nussbaum’s piece – myself included – had a strong negative reaction to the opening paragraph of Truslow’s story but ultimately liked the whole thing. So let’s the skip the horrid tweeness of the introduction in which we are told we are reading a story (told by someone within Truslow’s story) and move onto the meat.

The meat turns out to be a story within a story within a story. A bunch of indolent young men, attended by a servant, are whiling away the evening telling each other tales. Chief amongst them are brothers Cail, “clever and dutiful”, and Jerrin, “lazy and stuffed with dreams” (Truslow pre-emptively lampshades this conveniently broad characterisation by having having her narrator note: “You know how brothers are in stories”. These metafictional insertions are an unwelcome but defining characteristic of the story.)

But it is not the brothers who are the heart of the story but there servant. Truslow nicely sketches both their indulgence for their employee (“Bue poured their cups full to the brim, and served himself too, as none had forbidden him.”) and the limitations of this (“You’ll do it,” said Jerrin, bored of joking. “Or I’ll have you sent back to your swamp, where you can practice your wit on the crabs.”) This beneficence extends to allowing him to tell his story.

But ‘he’ is not right; or rather, ‘he’ is not solely right. Bue was a country girl from a family of fishers who discovered an unexpected talent for magic. “And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.” So far, so traditional. But Bue’s response and, more importantly, her parents’ reaction is not:

Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”

And her parents were not hard people. “Ah, is that how it is?” said Bue’s mother, who had seen her nodding at shrines to the double-god Kam. “It’s a week till Crossing, isn’t it?”

“Go as our son, then,” said her father. “If you find yourself happy, well enough. If you change your mind, come home for the Carnival, and we’ll send you back as our daughter.”

This easy, happy fluidity of gender is the story’s great strength and allows Truslow to pursue a new type of fairytale that looks forward rather than back. Unfortunately she then spoils the effect of this passage by making her narrator lecture the reader:

Have I confused you? Oh, to be telling this tale in my own tongue! They say a bad workman blames her tools, and maybe so, but your language throws up strange borders. Understand: to her parents, Bue was a daughter, but to herself? Neither “he” nor “she” is exactly right, and nor is any third word. But these are the words you understand, so I’ll do what I can with them.

No, I wasn’t confused, I was impressed; now I’m simply annoyed. Anyway, Bue travels to the city, where she uses her “haunt-tricks” and a bit of typical fairytale trickery to tame a ghostwood barge belonging to the brothers’ father. Truslow is probably at her best both in the language she uses to describe magic and the description itself (my favourite neologism, however, is “night-tired” for hung-over). Bue then finds a fairytale princess in a tower to be rescued which is prettily managed, if fairly familiar.

As the story heads to its conclusion, Truslow again swerves off to tell another story. This time it is ‘The Wandering Lovers, or How Kam Married Theirself’, the origin story of the god of the Crossing. But why? This sort of background explication is entirely unnecessary when over the page we have a much more direct and affecting depiction of the outcome: “They saw a stranded Carnival boat of young boys with painted ladies’ faces, striking parody poses, all but one making themselves giddy laughing at each others’ antics. The last of their number simply peered at her new reflection in a puddle and smiled; her friends didn’t laugh at her.” On more than one occasion, ‘Boat In Shadows, Crossing’ is a story that would have benefited from being told true. Like many of its characters, it wears a mask but is at its best when we can see its face.

Written by Martin

21 February 2014 at 13:39

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ by Sofia Samatar – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ was originally published at Strange Horizons

One of the odd things about SF short fiction – and one of the reasons for this feature – is that so much of it is published but so little is written about it. And when short fiction is written about, it is usually in the listings format that goes for comprehensive coverage of as many stories as possible over analysis of individual stories. As an example, here is how ‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ (a story which was voted the best of 2013 by readers of Strange Horizons and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award) was described by the two biggest short fiction reviewing venues when it was first published:

“Told in short back-and-forth sections, this one is a typical SH story about love and commitment, with the selkie tale standing in as a metaphor.”

Lois Tilton’s short fiction column for Locus Online.

“Sofia Somatar’s storytelling style owes a debt to Kelly Link’s magic realism, but lacks that author’s emotional wallop. A quick read that gets a little lost in its own naval gazing and one non sequitur too many, but your mileage may vary depending on your taste for quirk.”

Jared L Mills reviewing for Tangent Online

It is hard to write about short fiction. It is particularly hard to write about short short fiction (‘Selkie Stories Are For Losers’ is 3,000, a thousand less than ‘Saga’s Children). But surely if it is so central to our genre, we need to collectively get a lot better at it? (I’m including myself in this.)

So, a selkie is a mythical creature that looks like seal in the water but once on land, having shed its skin, appears to be a human. There is something inherently a bit naff about selkies, something Samatar gestures at with her title, and Tilton is right that here they function primarily as a metaphor (you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to read this as an entirely realist story).

The sentiment of the title is voiced by the narrator in the opening paragraph: “I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.” It is a great opening, immediately capturing the protagonist’s voice whilst also flagging the irony and metafictionality of the story. She’s eighteen, trying to understand her mother’s sudden disappearance on top of already trying to understand herself.

This second half of the story is reflected in the lovely relationship she forms with fellow waitress Mona, something that might be a burgeoning romance or might be platonic intimacy: “I’ve never kissed Mona. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I keep deciding it’s not time. It’s not that I think she’d freak out or anything. It’s not even that I’m afraid she wouldn’t kiss me back. It’s worse: I’m afraid she’d kiss me back, but not mean it.” If, like Mills, you can read any of this stuff without getting walloped by emotion then perhaps you need re-calibrating.

Equally, it is hard to spot the supposed navel-gazing and non sequitars. This is an extremely cleverly and precisely composed story; each short paragraph overlapping and amplifying the themes of the others, fluidly and without attracting attention. I guess this is part of the trouble with reviewing such fiction: if you take it apart, will it still work? The beauty of the story certainly isn’t broken by examination but I’m not sure it can be spoken either.

Written by Martin

14 February 2014 at 16:29

The Collapse Of Complex Societies

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My review of Wolves by Simon Ings is up now at Strange Horizons. It is a conflicted review for a conflicted novel but it is ultimately a positive review for an exciting novel:

Wolves, then, is best understood not as a triumphant return but as a fascinating work of transition. Ings is taking bold, vigorous steps forward but this is treacherous terrain and it is no surprise that he slips backwards from time to time. Sometimes though, he is just too cavalier. I’ve mentioned several authors as reference points throughout this review, each with a strong personality; the point is not to hold Ings to another’s standards but to set out the company he is confidently keeping. These are some of the most important figures in SF and Ings is moving into this territory, he just needs to fully commit. If he currently seems stranded half way to Harrison, I don’t think it will be for long.

I try to avoid anything about a book before I write my review but once I’d emerged from my shell, I discoverd three interesting pieces that touch on issues I raise. Firstly, a lovely tribute to Iain Banks from Ings. I see a lot of both Banks and M John Harrison in Wolves so was particularly struck by his opening anecdote:

I first met Iain Banks at Lumb Bank, a writing centre near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The area has since become the hairdressing and financial services capital of the western world, but back then you could still find the odd lock-in. Banksie (always and forever Banksie: the other one is a parvenu) was teaching a course in writing science fiction. Mike Harrison was his guest reader, a prickly bugger who’d just finished a story called Small Heirlooms, for my money one of the great short stories of his or anyone’s career. I didn’t get how Banks and Harrison were such mates — the one bristling with psychic armour, the other ebullient, friendly, and without any apparent side to him at all.

Secondly, Toby Litt’s rave review in the Guardian. Having played the game of supposed influence myself, I probably shouldn’t throw stones whilst standing in a greenhouse but I think the connection Litt sees to JG Ballard is a bit of a red herring. I loved his suggestion that Ings was an “SF Thomas Hardy” though:

And here is where the Ballard comparisons stop short – because what is strongest in Wolves, and what gives the novel its greatest power to dominate the mind, is something it has in common with Graham Swift’s Waterland, Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands or Nicola Barker’s Wide Open. That is, an action that comes out of those scraggy edgelands where earth and water mix, where the shore is never certain.

This chimes with a wider point I make in my review:

Unnamed and unnameable; in contrast to Ings’s two globe-trotting previous novels, Wolves is ageographic. It takes place on some other island, an unnamed place linked only to Earth itself by the odd reference to things like “the Turkish quarter” and by the ghost of the British landscape. The combination of the tongue-tip familiar and the estrangingly alien is all part of the highly effective destabilising strategy Ings is deploying.

Thirdly, there are Ings’s comments on the genesis of the novel: “The deepest truth is that for over a year Wolves sat in my drawer, unsellable, malign, predicting, chapter by chapter, the worst year of my life.” This is extraordinarily candid stuff. It is also a perfect example of what a reviewer doesn’t want to read whilst they are working! Reading it after my review was complete answers some questions but poses others. So there is much more to say about Wolves – on influence and landscape and biography – and I am hoping to be able to write more about it myself later in the month. But for now, one more link: Jonathan Gibbs on Jeffrey Alan Love’s wonderful cover.

Written by Martin

10 February 2014 at 13:41

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‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

Hugo Nominations – Best Graphic Story & Best Fancast

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I’ve grouped these two categories together because I don’t have any of my own recommendations for either one of them. They also come perilously close to flunking my three criteria for Hugo categories: they must be for real things, there must be a sufficiently large pool of such things and the voters of the Hugos must be informed enough about such things to make meaningful nominations.

Best Graphic Story

A tortured description of the type sadly typical of the Hugos but I think everyone understands it is talking about comics. I love comics but, as I’ve written about before, I don’t really read them. I certainly don’t read them enough to but together a meaningful set of nominations and unfortunately, unlike the Best Artist categories, that can’t be fixed with a quick Google. So I will nominate anything that anyone persuades me is worthy in the comments. But it does beg the question, are Hugo voters, in general, qualified to nominate in this category? The evidence of the last couple of years since the category was instigated in 2009 aren’t positive: Girl Genius won for the first three years until the Foglios recused themselves and the bafflingly shit Schlock Mercenary has been shortlist every single year. I think we are approaching a make-or-break point for this category where the Hugo voters need to collectively step up or acknowledge that there can be important parts of SF that we just aren’t the right people to assess.

Best Fancast

I’ve never listened to a fancast (or, as they are known in the real world, a podcast) and I’ve no interest in starting. So I don’t want recommendations and I won’t be voting in the category once the shortlist is announced. Unlike the Best Editor categories, this is purely personal taste, but I do wonder if there is any real value in having a new fan category when the existing ones are relatively unpopular and the chief difference is the medium. Now, at last year’s Worldcon, Best Fancast was actually more popular than Best Fanzine but only by 841 votes to 820. This makes them them the third and first least voted categories (with Best Fan Writer sandwiched). Would combining the two produce the best of both worlds? New blood, more interest and a bigger pool?

You’ll probably have gathered that I think there are too many Hugo categories; given there are currently 16, I think that is inarguable. ‘Prizes for all’ is neither practical or sensible and a little bit of focus might encourage greater participation: last year only 1848 ballots were cast out of 6,060 total memberships.

Written by Martin

2 February 2014 at 19:29

Posted in awards, sf

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